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This is a story regarding the Great Knight's expedition to the distant nation of Rovaltinny (in an ancient Inamortan tongue which the Great Knights often use) or "Wings", as it is referred to in the native tongue, being part of The Great Northern Saga. For more on the Great Knights, see The History of the Great Knights, and for a list of the characters and locations, see Eclipse of the Knights - Characters and Locations.

NOTE: Most of the character profiles connected to this story are likely to contain spoilers.

Chapter One - Crawling In The Night Edit

Chaos. Destruction. The grass stained red with blood. The statue shattered. He stood there, wielding a bloodied axe and shield, grinning at the devastation he had caused. In a futile attempt to escape, a fallen civilian attempted to crawl away. Steadily, he marched up to the civilian, axe reared to deliver the killing blow. But just as he was upon him, rather than use the blade of the axe, he smashed the base of the handle into his helpless victim, caving in the back of his skull. Blood trickled out as he used his axe handle to pummel the civilian's head into pulp. Soon, there was nothing. Nothing but a gruesome mess of blood, bone and brains.

Vince woke from his nightmare, sweat dripping from his forehead. Cautiously, he stared around the tent. All four of his fellow Great Knights lay asleep in their hastily assembled bunks, all unusually silent.

Creak. Vince fixed his gaze upon the shadows of the trees swaying in the moonlight on the thin, flaxen tent exterior. Two figures emerged, their footsteps as quiet as those of a hunter stalking its prey, and headed towards the entrance. He felt the temptation to leap out of his bunk to grab his sword and axe, but felt utterly paralysed. His heart began to pound as the figures engorged in size until they reached the tent’s entrance.

“Ah, can’t see in the dark. Is this the right tent?”. The face of a grizzled knight poked through and peered into the interior. After his subordinate confirmed his comment, the rather short knight stepped in, clutching a crested helmet under his left arm, and barked an order at the sleeping soldiers, “Wake up men! Your night watch begins in fifteen minutes.”

Awoken, Vince’s comrades stirred and groaned, before the knight took a lamp from his officer and marched around the tent, glaring at each of the men. Vince managed to lift himself out and began to stumble outside with his sandals to urinate in a jar. As he did so, he glanced at the radiant full moon, its brightness illuminating the ordered rows of tents. Beyond the stakes surrounding the camp lay a dense expanse of forest, crawling with bizarre creatures apparently native to the North. "Hopefully the Wingidons actually have barracks for us" thought Vince. The entire three thousand-strong detachment was part of a Great Knight expedition to aid their distant allies, the winged denizens of the Eclipse Mountains and the nation of Rovaltinny or "Wings" in the North-West who named themselves the Wingidons. They were particularly strange due to the fact that they had wings - feathery wings akin to those of a bird - which enabled them to fly. Years ago, Great Knight explorers had promised to aid the Wingidons in the case of invasion. Vince smiled to himself as he envisioned the peculiarity of the Wingidons who were delighted by this promise, despite the distance between the two realms being hundreds of kilometres. "They probably won't need us" he muttered to himself.

Once Vince was fully prepared for his night watch, he joined his companions.

“Good morning Delphius”.

Delphius’ lanky form emerged from the dimly-lit tent, grasping a battered axe in one hand and an equally battered shield in his other.

“I hate night watch” he grumbled. His eyes were still streaked red and his voice grainy. “I bet you that Pepin the Short just wanted to punish us for fun.” Delphius remarked as he looked back at the diminutive Knight in his polished armour.

Vince replied “If we were being punished, we would end up like Grifo. As a matter of fact, I’m surprised Grifo hasn't been executed. Some Great Knight commanders would have just dashed his brains out personally after he disobeyed orders or spoke back to them. I know that at least our old general would have..."

The two fell silent as they passed the blood-soaked body of Grifo, who was leaning against the wheel he had been tied up to, unconscious. "Is this really needed?" Vince questioned himself.

After navigating their way through the near-identical passageways between the tents, Vince and Delphius arrived at the stakes surrounding the statue and several crops of gold.

"Greetings friends," someone whispered at them. It was Samson, holding his remarkably reflective axe in one hand and a lamp in the other.

"Hi Samson," they both responded in near unison. While both Delphius and Samson had been eager to test their prowess in war, only Samson saw night watch as fun. After all, wouldn't it be more challenging to fight the native creatures on their home territory in the dark. Regardless, Samson had always been prepared for battle and had memorised enough military manuals, both regular and ancient, to display and explain every single tactic three Great Knights could use against a variety of opponents, including the nefarious creatures they were on guard for.

"Now Samson, don't get too hopeful that we get attacked by a swarm of these...things. I think everyone else is practically..."

A horrific screech filled the night air, breaking the relative tranquillity of the camp. All three soldiers looked at each other: one smiling, one frustrated; and one concerned. They unsheathed their weapons. Vince felt the adrenaline pumping through his veins, focusing his eyes on the border between the dark forest and the camp. Glimpses of red began to appear in the forest. Vince gripped his weapons tighter.

Tentatively, a single cat-like reptile stepped out of the darkness. It was diminutive in size. Its glowing red eyes widened and protruded out of its face, while it cackled menacingly.

All of a sudden, a pack of Crawlers pounded out of the twisted woods. The scaled monstrosities leapt over the firm mud and patches of grass. Samson beamed. "Practice time!" he yelled, while Vince cried out "Incoming Crawlers!". The other Knights raised their shields. The rush of footsteps could be heard from behind as several other guards rushed to reinforce them.

Samson's glinting axe sped forwards and cleaved the lead Crawlers head off, which rolled off onto the ground. His next blow landed directly on another Crawler's skull, making a satisfying crunch as it hit. In the meantime, Vince and Delphius used their shields the shove back the incoming Crawlers who threw their entire body mass against them. Confidently, Vince stabbed his sword forwards and caught a writhing Crawler in the side of its neck, allowing a stream of blood to pour out and its body to collapse.

Delphius made a similar movement with his axe, shearing off a creature's leg before finishing it. Without warning, he and Samson then charged forwards, knocking over several Crawlers with their momentum and executing them as they were incapacitated. Two Knights to their right made a similar manoeuvre, stunning three Crawlers and using the slight point on the bottom of their shields to bludgeon and dislocate their necks. The furious war cries of the few were matched only by the screeches of their enemies. Pools of blood were splattered everywhere at the edge of the stakes as the cold steel and might of the Great Knights unleashed upon the Crawlers.

The combined night guards continued to crush the Crawlers, pushing forward as certain soldiers charged forward to prevent them from regrouping. Even though the Crawlers outnumbered the Knights by two to one, they stood no chance. A few remained limp on the ground, trodden on by the advancing metal-clad warriors.

Within a minute, the once thirty-strong pack of Crawlers was a mere three individuals that had the intelligence, and the nonchalance, to scamper back into the forest, dragging a few of the smallest casualties along with them, presumably for consumption.

"Cowards!" Samson cried jokingly at the fleeing Crawlers. He stared down at the numerous disfigured lumps of flesh and kicked one head away, before pulling out a clean cloth to wipe the blade of his axe with. Delphius spat on one of the corpses and made a rude gesture at it, proceeding to stamp its brains out. Vince’s heavy breathing ceased and he looked to the other Knights, several of whom had rushed out to defend the statue. Some were clutching their axes and swords, while a few longbowmen and crossbowmen advanced out of their positions to collect the few arrows and bolts they had fired.

Vince felt a slight sense of relief: that had been easy enough. But as he reflected on the encounter, a sudden dark chill crept up his spine. Nothing he reassured himself silently while scanning the forest. Only a single pair of glowing red eyes were visible from afar, staring unblinkingly for several seconds and them disappearing into the night. Just a Crawler he thought to himself again. Just a Crawler...

Chapter Two - Pack Mentality Edit

Vince yawned as the sun rose from the horizon. His companions were all similarly tired and irritated, muttering sarcastic jokes about feeling dead inside. A few had taken to disassembling the dead Crawlers and throwing their mutilated remains at each other to save themselves from going insane with boredom. All were broadly arrayed around the statue, with only a few focusing on the forest they were all supposed to watch for.

Samson continued to switch between reading a history book of Cranium (Northern Inamorta), taking small sips of dilute ale from his water skin and polishing his shield, which he had laid out next to the statue. "Apparently, we're only a day's march away from Rovaltinny" he stated rather plainly. He knew that many of the Great Knights on this expedition were doubtful of their purpose: sending almost 2,700 Knights and 400 Auxiliary Soldiers deep into the North seemed impractical to face an entire invasion force by an unknown enemy. Regardless, no one truly despised the Wingidons, only their lack of a sophisticated language, in fact the Knight's considered "Wingidon" as an insult if said directly to them, and referred to them solely as Rovalians, especially since the Wingidons' cousins in the Eagle Mountains, known as the Theryn, were somewhat superior in their technology and closer to the Great Knights.

"Good morning again lads!" Pepin, their short-statured commander, arrived with a small grin. "Finally, the expedition is moving out again to link up with a Rovalian detachment at the borders of their kingdom." His announcement was met with a few quiet cheers and multiple grunts. "However, we haven't been able to contact them because..." Pepin faltered as he surveyed the soldiers' faces. Almost all of them seemed to have been drained of life. After a pause of several seconds, Pepin spoke up again, only at a quieter volume "...At least 3 scouting parties were attacked, apparently by a large pack of Crawlers."

Murmurs erupted throughout the Knights. How could 3 scouting parties, each consisting of 9 Great Knights and 5 Archers be overwhelmed by Crawlers? But the more perceptive realised that there must have been over 300 Crawlers to overwhelm that many soldiers, and with no information of the path ahead, there could be many more.

"Therefore, we're sending out a larger task force to sweep the path and enable communication with the Rovalians. A second group will remain in the surrounding forest and guard our retreat, but we won't be able to deconstruct the camp if we don't make contact with the Rovalians. Any questions?"

As Pepin answered the many questions that the Knights had, Vince turned to his comrades, grinning at them.

"Here's your chance to kill some more Crawlers. I definitely hope that Pepin takes our squadron." He mocked them sarcastically. He could see that their eyes were completely bloodshot and their ears were barely comprehending his loud voice. Delphius rolled his eyes in response while Samson groaned. Neither of them were in any mood to slaughter more beasts, in spite of their usual attitude towards doing so.

"Maybe we should have got some sleep. This operation sounds more promising than night watch." Delphius complained. After a short pause, he whispered "If Pepin selects us, I'm going to be incredibly peeved, and may possibly split his skull - although that seems to be what always happens to anyone who annoys me mildly in the end."

Both Vince and Samson nodded casually. Neither approved of Delphius' somewhat murderous tendencies, but they knew that Delphius would do no such thing - murder was reserved for those who Delphius truly hated.

"So then, who's ready for some more killing!" A voice boomed from behind. Hastini Rongsabin emerged, clutching a large and ornate axe in her hands and a taunting smile on her face. "Or are you all too tired from standing around at night?"

The mocking tone in her voice enraged Vince, but it was not for himself that he was concerned: it was Delphius. His obsession with brutality was something that Hastini shared and even approved of, but Vince could tell that she was even more sadistic - where Delphius would split someone's skull in half, Hastini would ram blunt points into her victims' knee caps to dislocate them, snap off several joints and then disembowel them - and loathed her for it.

"Tired? We're not tired at all!" Delphius exclaimed, just as Samson yawned rather prominently.

"Oh really?" She replied snidely "Prove it."

All of a sudden, Hastini's axe was arcing over her head towards Delphius. Delphius leaped out of the way just as the axe glinted the side of his helmet, leaving a visible gash in the side.

"A bit slow don't you think."

"Delphius, are you ok!" Vince rushed to his side, inspecting the dent. He glared up at Hastini, who was still grinning. "Why would you do that? You almost killed him!" He could feel his blood boil in his veins as he stood up to meet her at eye level.

"It's fine. He's alive." Hastini replied calmly. She then turned to Delphius' crouching form. "Well, you managed to survive, so I think you can stay alive when facing a mass of Crawlers."

Samson finally spoke. "That was completely unnecessary." he reprimanded her sternly. Hastini continued to sneer and turned away with complete confidence, ignoring Vince's insults and Samson's criticisms.

"No conscience or honour at all. I hope she dies and burns in hell." Vince whispered to Samson.

"Let's hope so, although from what I can tell, hell seems to be the ideal home for her." They looked back to Delphius, who had just stood back up again, slightly dazed. As he stumbled about, he almost knocked into Pepin, who was roughly a third shorter than Delphius.

"Vince, I need your squadron to move out and join the centre vanguard. There has to be at least 200 experienced fighters to crush all the Crawlers ahead." Before anyone could respond, Pepin smiled approvingly, handing Samson a file of papers and left in a hurry. Clearly frustrated, Delphius started swearing repeatedly, while Vince patted him on the back half-sympathetically.

"Well then, get Edlothang and brief the others and get them on the road in 45 minutes. Get them to have breakfast quickly." Vince spoke. Samson nodded and glanced at the readjusted sundial behind him, turning to leave as he did so.

***

After eating hurriedly, Vince's squadron assembled at the edge of the camp, along with several other veteran warriors grouped in their respective divisions. Vince ambled to the front of his soldiers, appearing slightly reinvigorated after drinking several cups of boiled tea.

A bubbly voice sprang out from almost nowhere, "Hi Vince, seems like we really are the best of the best - we get to be thrown straight into hostile territory with full armour in a forest!" Vince pivoted around to see Edlothang, potentially the most cheery soldier he had every met, looking absolutely delighted with the prospect of a dangerous mission, her brilliant white teeth almost shining in the morning sunlight. "A bit like Samson, but less philosophical and almost never tired. That's why they're both lieutenants." Vince contemplated.

"Yes, it seems we are. I'm not so keen on fighting against an enemy which we have no intel on." he replied with slightly less enthusiasm.

Not discouraged, Edlothang shrugged, maintaining her friendly smile "Maybe, but it feels good to be helping those Rovalians, as peculiar as they are."

Intrigued by Edlothang's inextinguishable morale, Vince nodded in response "Fair enough. Any way, I presume that everyone knows the plan from Samson's papers, and that you and Samson are equipped with the signalling horns?"

"Yes, everyone knows the plan, and all the signallers have been assigned. Actually, I think you should probably address the squadron now." She performed a short salute to Vince before returning to her position within the squadron.

As he addressed them, he could not help but notice that almost all of them were eager to fight (with a few exceptions, notably Samson and Delphius, who were simply tired), murderous smiles etched onto their faces. The best of the best Vince repeated Edlothang's words to himself silently with pride, he was after all commanding young, yet experienced, knights who he had fought together with in campaigns from the frigid Ice Hills to the dense forests of the Havik Kingdom, and achieved amazing success.

His silent reflection was rudely interrupted by Hastini, who swaggered arrogantly past with her axe trailing behind her, knocking Vince forward with a shoulder barge. He turned around scowling as the amused Hastini continued to advance, completely ignoring him. Why on earth does Delphius still consider her a friend?

"Well, having a sadist in your ranks does strike fear into the hearts of your enemies, making them more cautious and, when their line begins to break, panicky and extraordinarily fun to pursue with cavalry." Vince looked to his other side at the tall, metal-clad, beaming young woman standing in front of her own squadron.

"Parean, was I... was I just thinking out loud?" He questioned, slightly puzzled at her comment.

"No, but it was rather obvious from your expression that it was something to do with Hastini's presence." Parean responded without hesitation. Vince still appeared confused, his eyes having wandered towards the sky as he pondered on his previous expression. "If it's any comfort, in a scenario where we are all besieged and run out of supplies, Hastini will definitely be our first victim of cannibalisation." She added rather enthusiastically, raising an amused smile from Vince.

"How would we kill her though? There has to be some element of disembowelment for ironic purposes."

"Of course there does, but wouldn't it be more fun to also destroy her joints with brute force and tear off her nails." They both grimaced in agreement. Vince knew that Parean was not a sadist in any way, but occasionally they would both indulge in their own fantasy of torturing Hastini to death.

"Vince, Parean, get up here quickly!" another Great Knight captain bellowed from the command tent. The two hurried in that direction to gather around a table with several of the most senior Great Knights planning their attack strategy. Pepin stood in the middle of the huddle, holding a few banner figures to signify the various squadrons, with 40 soldiers each. 5 were congregated at the centre of the road, while a further 3 were positioned on each side of the road.

He pushed the flanking groups up first. "We need to clear the forest of potential ambushers before our main group advances on the road. We are expecting resistance, so each group has their own signallers following this system: one horn for spotting the enemy, two for engaging them, three if reinforcements may be required if more are attackers are suspected, and finally, four if your group is being overrun." Most of the captains nodded at this, whereas Vince and Parean took some more time figuring out the locations.

"Do we have any exact information on the numbers or locations of these creatures?" Vince inquired "There could be thousands of them lurking amongst these forests just waiting to annihilate our divided groups piecemeal. Somehow, these Crawlers are acting...intelligent. Within the past few days, most of the Crawlers we've faced were bigger, faster and attacked small groups of guards with overwhelming numbers, picking us off slowly. We can't just send in.."

"And what would you suggest we do then?" the irritated voice of a woman cut off Vince's complaint. "Send in more scout groups? Even you said that these Crawlers were superior and could pick off small groups of soldiers, and you want to send in more scouts to be butchered without any benefit." she derided him. "I thought you were the sort of captain who threw his troops into a massive assault to ensure they fought together, not separated."

Flustered, Vince opened his mouth to protest, but thought better of it and hung his head as a wave of shame overtook him. "Fair enough Lieutenant General Tangeldis, you're right." He silently berated himself for his stupidity, while Tangeldis continued staring at him with what could be interpreted as contempt. Vince attempted to avoid her piercing eyes and casually glanced around the table. All the other captains were showing some sign of discomfort.

Pepin continued "Anyway, each group should be able to assign three backup horn signallers and equip them accordingly. The first groups will march out in 15 minutes and the centre group within 20 minutes. Any questions?"

One of the Great Knight captains standing next to Vince spoke up, pointing at a point on the map "What about the turn in the road there? If the Crawlers are intelligent as you say they are, then surely they would attack us where the vegetation is most dense and visibility is low. After all, that would be a good spot to engage us and we wouldn't know how many Crawlers were committing to the attack. We might want to be careful in reinforcing our groups until we have a better idea about the size of their forces. They could attack one group on the left to lure away defenders, then send in the rest of the forces to attack the group on the right after they have sent reinforcements."

"Captain Nircurus, all you are suggesting is that we should be careful separating and reinforcing our groups." Tangeldis commented with a haughty expression, clearly feeling the need to shut him down. Nircurus shook his head, smiling mischievously "Do you remember your military history Tangeldis, for example, in the Lostathon Campaign?"

Tangeldis' skin flushed red, but her expression remained as staunch as previously. The more experienced captains in the tent began smiling knowingly. "No? Let me remind you. Your sister - and she still is related to you , no matter how much you hate each other - led around 3,000 Great Knights into battle. They were facing 1,500 soldiers; it should have been an easy victory. But instead: you came along; told them to split up; failed to send out scouts; marched half of the groups against the enemy; and then you just left. What happened to those 3,000 Great Knights? I know you don't care about your sister, but what about them?"

With deliberate action, he paused, seemingly waiting for an answer to his rhetorical question. All attention was focused on Tangeldis, who remained silent.

"Destruction in detail. All of those Knights were killed." Nircurus finished.

Tangeldis finally retorted "What about the Woid attack on the Drookies? I earned the Great Knights another vassal kingdom by crushing those nomads. What about the Second Battle of Firnost? I saved you from facing a huge army of spearmen when all you had was heavy cavalry and a few Knights. What about..."

"Yes, I think that's enough. We have timings to follow." Pepin yelled. "We can boast or reminisce or insult each other later, not now."

***

"Stay close to Nircurus' squadron!" Vince bellowed at his troops. The road was little more than a mud track, battered by the wet and frigid weather of the North West. Even though they were marching in broad daylight, the towering trees along the side of the path cast looming shadows on the advancing Great Knight column. All of them were surveying their surroundings, anticipating the orbs of red hidden in the forest and the scramble of vegetation being disrupted.

Just the column turned the dreaded bend and the borders of the forest and road became glaringly obvious, a loud horn blasted from deep within the forest on their left. This was followed by two blasts. "Our left flank has engaged." Captain Nircurus addressed the column calmly and rather reluctantly. His squadron was in front of Vince's and Parean's. "We should probably prepare one group to..."

Without warning, a chorus of loud horns exploded on their left. Four horns. The entire column stopped moving as they processed the sudden rush of signals. It was clear that the 120 soldiers in the forest were being utterly overrun.

Then, another volley of horns came from the right. Now the right flank was being overrun as well. "They've swarmed us on both sides." Parean whispered to Vince

"And now they have encircled us! Just as suspected." Nircurus exclaimed.

A writhing mass of the creatures spilled onto the road both ahead and behind them, intent on killing. A few Great Knights were scrambling through the forest, desperately trying to escape the horde that was devouring them so quickly.

Vince glanced at the other captains, then at Samson, Edlothang and Delphius. They all nodded in agreement.

"Defensive positions!"

Chapter Three - Flying Statues Edit

Pepin was running. Running through a spider's web of tree branches and brambles, chased by semi-intelligent monsters intent on eating him. "If this is how father died, I can now feel his pain." He muttered to himself as he sprinted through the forest, stumbling and hacking his way through. The left flank had been obliterated in the blink of an eye and now 80 Great Knights were fleeing to the central group. The same situation was with that of the right flank he presumed, as distant signals could be heard. A single, much louder horn blast sounded - the centre had spotted the enemy.

Suddenly, Pepin's foot caught on a tree root, tripping him up and causing him to lurch forwards. He cursed as he collapsed to the ground, scraping the skin off his hands and dropping his sword. Attempting to recover, he grabbed his sword and sheathed it, instead taking out one of his several throwing axes and hacking a path to the road.

Then, a few ravenous screams came from behind him. Apprehensive, Pepin turned around, seeing one of the Great Knights behind him being swarmed and clawed to death. Instinctively, Pepin hurled the axe in his hand at the Crawlers, scattering them as it bounced on the uneven forest floor and catching two in the limbs. He threw another axe as the Crawlers retreated, this time aiming higher and detaching multiple branches, which fell and trapped four Crawlers underneath. Pepin rushed to slice all of them in a single stroke, before shifting his attention to the fallen Great Knight beside him. His mouth hung agape as he saw the knight's head, battered beyond recognition and detached from the body. Pepin hurriedly spoke a short prayer, looking up immediately as he completed it.

Almost instantly, his arm flicked up, cracking the jaw of a Crawler that had leapt at him to try and ambush him. As he wrenched his axe free, another pack of Crawlers advanced, slipping through the maze of twigs and thorns with ease. Not wasting a second, Pepin dashed to the path he had created previously, eager to reach his fellow soldiers.

Wielding his throwing axe, he rushed to the edge of the forest, breaking through in an instant. His arrival was met with a few sighs of relief, but there was no mistaking the fear that gripped almost every one of them. Pepin twisted his head round to see a thousand Crawlers pour onto the road. "Here we go" he though.

"Shield wall, ring formation!" he commanded in the most confident voice he could muster. Tapping into their years of professional training, the knights began to arrange their formation. Heart thumping, Pepin sprinted to the centre, axes in hand and ready to shatter the enemy. Surrounding him were the survivors of his own squadron, all armed similarly with throwing axes designed to shatter enemy cohesion by destroying their shields, while a few heavy axe soldiers were positioned there, ready to reinforce if necessary. The next ring consisted of Tangeldis and her squadron from the right flank, which had now also withdrawn to the centre, clutching long thrusting spears that reached over the shoulder of the outer ring - consisting of Knights equipped with axes and swords. All of them clamped down in their formation, creating a uniform ring of steel that all of its components hoped would be impenetrable.

Emboldened by their successful encirclement, the Crawlers were now assembling, prowling around the defensive circle, all of them waiting for a signal to attack. Their jagged teeth were clearly visible in their twisted smiles, displaying stains of blood, probably made by tearing the flesh from an unfortunate knight.

Purrs and other bizarre sounds began uttering from their diaphragms, while their tails began waving eerily in complete unison. Standing in the centre of his formation, Pepin could detect the growing concentration of sweat from his troops. Deep breaths.

Meanwhile, Vince was standing shoulder to shoulder with Delphius and Samson, shields abut and raised, clenching his sweaty palm on the handle of his arming sword. His heart pounding felt like a stampede of enraged horses, or maybe the famed mass charge of the Great Knights - only this time, it was they who were the victims of the charge. "Ironic" concluded Vince bitterly.

Instantly, the ear-splitting shrieks of the Crawlers broke Vince's train of thought. They were charging. He braced himself for the incoming smash of the rabid beasts hurling their jagged, scaled bodies against his shield as the rumbling of their charge intensified.

"Squadron, now!" Pepin screamed in an agitated voice. In a split second, Pepin's squadron hurled their axes in several directions, sending Crawlers flying as the axes rebounded and crashed into them and splintered their arrowhead formations with which there were moving in. Only a few dispersed creatures even reached the shield wall, where the spears began stabbing out and impaling several more Crawlers.

Yet it was clear that the thousand or so Crawlers were not going to give up: they had surrounded the best of the Great Knight expedition; now would be the time to annihilate once and for all, and they had the combined intelligence to recognise this. With a signal from the presumed leaders of the packs, the encirclement tightened and now a fresh wave of prepared to attack.

Synchronous with an unusual hiss, a whole tsunami of charcoal-inflected appendages, claws and teeth came crashing towards the formation again, only this time, they avoided the axe volley that greeted them to their best ability, suffering far fewer casualties than before. They've learnt to dodge? Pepin exclaimed within his own mind.

All the same, this was not the thought that was streaming through Vince's, or indeed anyone else in the outer ring's mind. Instead, it was a mixture of profanities directed at the Crawlers and some more civilised thoughts of home. Some were even contemplating life itself.

In a single smash, the weight of over a thousand beings hammered against the steel plates that were the only thing keeping the terrified soldiers breathing - if one section collapsed, the entire formation was likely doomed. Vince barged his shield out in tandem with Samson and Delphius, intending to knock them back, nevertheless, to no avail.

Even when compressing the handle of his shield so tightly his hands were trembling, Vince sensed the sudden release of pressure. The Crawlers were retreating; no, they were coming back!

"Cycle charging" Vince heard Nircurus announce. Having had only a very brief respite, the shield wall shook again as the impact of the charge hit. Then, the line ruptured.

A terrified Knight had stabbed out his axe, only for his shield to be dragged out, taking him with it. Crawlers burst into their ranks and panic immediately caught them. Pepin swore. Voice wavering, he yelled "Hastini, get the axe warriors to seal the breach!". Hastini, hidden within the centre of the formation, emerged with a massive grin, shoving a few spearmen aside as her soldiers, around 20 in total, all with large two-handed axes. As soon as a Crawler leapt upon her, she landed a vicious kick to the underbelly, before stamping on its neck and severing its spine. Arranged in a crescent formation, half of the axe warriors were spinning their blade to catch the approaching, unarmoured Crawlers in any position possible, while the other half was dispersed between them, ensuring that their comrades were defended. Their weapons continually sliced through the flesh of the Crawlers easily, shattering bone if used efficienly.

Concurrent to Hastini's display of axe-fighting skills, chaos had erupted in the outer ring, which was no longer a formation, but a few isolated groups of knights being destroyed in detail, much to the dismay of Nircurus. Vince, Samson, Delphius and Edlothang were all trapped in the same pocket, not far from Tangeldis' spear troops, who were systematically stabbing out to kill as many Crawlers as possible. Vince's squadron had no such advantage of reach or cohesion: they were surrounded in a circle formation of their own.

Thirty or so Great Knights under Vince were sporadically striking their weapons out, axes rapidly decapitating their opponents with surprising precision. They were almost all afraid, but now was not the time to show it. Vince kept his head low, peering above his shield to witness a single Crawler rearing up on its hind leg to somersault in the air and lash at his face. Without hesitation, Vince shoved the Crawler onto its back just as it left the floor, bringing his shield crashing down on the creature's stomach, spilling a pool of blood onto the ground.

To his right, Samson used an upwards strike with his axe to bat away another Crawlers performing a near identical move. Despite this, where one Crawler fell, two more would take its place. A breakthrough would be impossible. Depressed by this gradual realisation, Delphius mumbled satirically "Well, at least we died somewhere close to our objective. It's a shame we won't achieve our perfect record of succeeding in every campaign that we've fought in."

"O come on Delphius, we might as well try to kill as many of them as possible and lessen the burden of those Rovalians!" Edlothang chided him in a characteristically cheerful voice, while her arming sword slit the neck of a Crawler. Unmoved by Edlothang's comment, Delphius rolled his eyes and continued striking out at the increasing number of Crawlers, which despite Hastini's best efforts, were still coming in by the hundreds.

Abruptly, a single horn blasted from around the corner of the road. Vince stared in that direction, as did most of his squad. A hoarse voiced exclaimed an order: "Charge!" Even the Crawlers were now looking back, their beastly faces conveying some sense of fear. "Metal" Vince observed as the first beings emerged from behind the dense forest.

"Reinforcements have arrived!" Edlothang screamed with delight. Parean, trapped in her own pocket, relayed the message to the main body where Tangeldis and Pepin were held. With renewed vigour, the Great Knights began hewing down the Crawlers, some of whom were beginning to falter. The reinforcing knights charged into the rear of the Crawler mass, scattering them first with a few throwing axes and utterly shattering them as they cut down the largest of the Crawlers. Once more, the Great Knights were charged with wrath and butchering the creatures that had dared to ambush them.

Vince's squadron broke out of their formation, descending on the fleeing Crawlers and chasing them back into the forest, where they halted their pursuit.

"Yes! Victorious once more!" Samson punched the air and high-fived a cheery Edlothang. Meanwhile, a relieved Delphius began kicking the corpses of the Crawlers around again, laughing at their mangled bodies and the partial look of fear in their dead eyes. Nircurus and Parean cantered towards Vince, broad smiles embedded on them.

"Now, that is why we keep reserves around to operate an excellent hammer and anvil operation." Parean spoke.

"I have to admit though, I would rather have been the hammer than the anvil, especially since in our case, the anvil didn't know that it was an anvil." Nircurus grimaced.

***

"All squadrons have been registered and losses calculated - we have 56 dead and 23 wounded sir. Captain Rethdurk is also returning to the camp with his reinforcements." Tangeldis informed Pepin. "Rethdurk probably needs some sort of recognition when we return for saving us" Pepin presumed. "Also, I need at least three relatively intact squadrons to move forward to the last objective. There we were supposed to rendezvous with a Rovalian patrol. Hopefully, they might still be there."

Tangeldis rapidly assessed the numbers of each of the squads from her sheet. "It would appear that Nircurus, Parean and Vince still have squads that are almost at full strength. I recommend that they should be sent further." Pepin agreed without hesitation.

***

"Are we still marching out after being ambushed by a thousand Crawlers?" Delphius moaned

Calmly, Pepin answered his rhetorical question "Yes, we still need to meet up with the Rovalians, who should be safe from any Crawler attacks." They were all trudging along the path, which had further disintegrated into a solid river of dirt, complete with jagged rocks penetrating from the ground. Pepin was marching with Vince's squad at the front.

"Wait, what is that?" Delphius questioned again as he pointed at a puddle only a few metres ahead, only this time, his tone was considerably more serious and inquisitive.

Samson shot him an amused look "It's a puddle, a pool of water that has accumulated after rainfall in a depression on an impermeable surface! Look, I might as well just jump into it and... " Samson leaped forward "See, it's one of those mini-lakes that Beriaur would hang you for if y-AARRGGHH!"

Samson jumped backwards, knocking into Delphius and Pepin and pushing them onto the floor. His expression contorted with anguish, he cradled his foot in his arms.

Curiously, Vince crouched down peered at the pool from its side, inspecting the harmless-looking liquid. "Hang on, it's slightly... green? No, it's very green from this angle."

"Samson's sabaton has been partially dissolved or something." Edlothang commented. "What is that substance?"

Both Parean and Nircurus had sprinted over to investigate. "Is that venom or poison?" Nircurus puzzled

Parean answered "Possibly, I've heard accounts of corrosive poisons which have a similar shade to this, only that the last records of those were from approximately..."

"140 years ago, only a few years after the Serpentine were annihilated. I should have known better than to step in a puddle." Samson finished Parean's sentence, who grinned in response.

"Ah yes, some Serpentine were able to discharge vast amounts of this poison which would inflict severe damage on those who came into contact with it and gradually drain a person's health to the point of death if left untreated. We must return to the camp to ensure that Samson's wounds have not been infiltrated by the venom, or he will soon be dead. My squadron will escort him back sir. We have a stretcher"

Without a nod of approval from Pepin, Nircurus and his lieutenants Galderian and Yaleris rapidly assembled a stretcher and lifted Samson's moderately heavy body onto it, proceeding to transport him back down the road as Samson complained that a stretcher was completely unnecessary.

The Great Knights continued to advance, deliberately avoiding the pools of poison that littered the road. Pepin almost tripped up on a spindly rock protruding out of the ground.

"Why are there suddenly so many stones..." Vince's question trailed off as he began to comprehend what he was seeing, drawing everyone's attention. Trapped in the tree in front of him was a statue. Not a large statue from which miners would gather mana, this was life size. The face was perfectly preserved, emanating with pain and fear, the mouth screaming silently and the eyes widened to a near disproportionate size, clearly in shock, and a hand was raised slightly below eye level, as if it was trying to defend itself against something.

The expansive wings on its back gave away that this was somewhat representation of a Rovalian, complete with the texture of feathers emerging. Hanging from one of the branches was a longbow, and on the statue itself was a mounted quiver, complete with several arrows.

Nervously, Parean began analysing the statue "That is not right. The Rovalians would not, could not carve anything like that. Much less would they carve a member of their own race apparently in pain, stuck in a tree. Is that bow still wooden? The quiver isn't made of stone?"

Keeping this information in mind, Pepin continued surveying the road, confusion continuing to build up in his mind as it registered an increasing number of life-like statues strewn carelessly everywhere. Many had shattered on the ground, seemingly having fallen from the sky. Possibly there was some pattern, 10 of the Statues were spread in a crescent formation around their current position, almost as if they were preparing to attack them.

Vince swallowed hard as his conclusion came to mind. "Is this...mass petrification?"

Chapter Four - Gates of Stone Edit

The camp was in a frenzy of movement. Amid the rapid deconstruction of tents, soldiers were discussing what had been seen only a few hours ago. Whispers of the words petrification, poison and Serpentine spread across the camp like wildfire. Those who knew their history well could recall that these were characteristics of the Serpentine, a race that had caused much destruction across Inamorta and had been completely wiped out by the Great Knights more than a hundred years ago. Now it appeared they had returned.

"The last recorded Serpentine were killed by Darvink Havik and his fleet when they attempted to flee back to the Maxilla Peninsula. That was one of the fundamental points in the split between him and Jygarn Invincibilis - Darvink demanded more recognition for his action."

A cool headed Parean was explaining the history of the Great Knights to Delphius and several of his lower ranking friends in her squadron, most of whom were less experienced than him, in one of their barrack tents

"So, does that mean that Darvink was just jealous of Jygarn's position as leader of the Great Knights, just because he was the one who actually finished off the Serpentine?" One of them inquired in an inquisitive and low-pitched tone.

"It was more...justified than that Lobaten. One of the main reasons for Darvink's frustration was that Belfaenar had died before he could return with the news that all of the Serpentine had been exterminated and hence Belfaenar Rochir never officially recognised it, making Jygarn joint leader with Saelara Rochir." The knight named Lobaten nodded in comprehension, as did most of the others.

"But are there still Serpentine alive and therefore Darvink didn't kill all of them?" Another question cropped up, this time from a smaller knight called Uldarlas, who was just as curious as her comrade Lobaten.

Unwilling to spread fear among the more inexperienced of the Great Knights, Parean replied "There is no confirmation that the petrified Wingidons were killed by Serpentine exactly, after all there are instances of mages powerful enough to transform themselves or potentially other beings into stone. I simply suggest that you are vigilant, but not paranoid, of any suspicious movements that you observe in the forest and do not travel around alone or in small groups, unless you are part of a reconnaissance party."

Just as Lobaten had done, Uldarlas gave a respectful nod to Parean, but she her face was still somewhat disappointed, almost as if she was looking forward to a flamboyantly speculative answer. Parean, perceptive as ever, knew not to feed her any false information or else risk a massive breakdown in morale among the younger Great Knights on the expedition.

"I think that's enough talk about snake people for one day." Delphius finally exclaimed, yet again fatigued after withstanding Parean's complicated - at least to him - droning on about Serpentine and rudimentary politics. The only thing Delphius enjoyed about politics was that it gave him an excuse to kill, for "political reasons" or maybe assassinating people - he found that the most satisfactory.

"Well, unfortunately 'snake people' are a crucial part of the history of the Great Knights. In fact, they can also withstand significant amounts of damage, but can still feel pain, therefore you could conceivably torture them for longer without worrying significantly about how to maximise torture efficiency." Parean chuckled in response, raising a slight smile from Delphius.

At that point, Galderian, Nircurus' most trusted lieutenant, poked his head through the tent, leading to several of the lower ranking Knights to immediately sit up, much to the amusement of Galderian, Parean and Delphius.

"Don't worry soldiers, you only need to be at the shun if I'm in the position of a cavalry officer, otherwise my rank isn't high enough for that to be necessary." Galderian chuckled, knowing that his rank had fluctuated so frequently that no one actually bothered to address him by it. Witnessing most of the Knights return to their slumped posture, he continued. "General Pepin requests your presence for the final forward operation."

Parean and the rest of her squadron, including Lobaten and Uldarlas, picked up their equipment, all with the sole exception of Delphius. "Not another mission, I've only slept for another three hours between this and the last!" he retorted in outrage.

Galderian rolled his eyes and began ranting instantaneously "Do you think that I wanted to take part in this either? Do you think I wanted to walk for the entirety of this campaign? Using horses for the sole purpose of transporting goods is ridiculously frustrating when mounted scouts could do so much better. Of course not an entire cavalry division, but at least two cavalry squadrons, one for Nircurus and one for me. And yet the Great Council decides to say 'no cavalry whatsoever'. I don't understand why Yaleris likes to dismount before fighting, cavalry used correctly is utterly devastating to any enemy. With the many knights we have at our disposal, we could even destroy units of spearmen! Cavalry is simply superb and this expedition was so poorly funded by the Council that I hate myself for even coming."

"Are you finished?" Delphius sneered. Lectures on "tactics" and "strategy" were something he usually switched off for, even when delivered by Samson - he was only interested when killing was mentioned.

"When commanded correctly, cavalry is the best." Galderian responded coldly, glowering at Delphius' clear lack of interest. "Remember Delphius, fighting isn't all about charging straight into the enemy, and definitely not charging into a pike or spear formation" He clasped his hand on Delphius shoulder. "It's good to enjoy warfare for the thrill of killing, but only if you treat your fellow living beings with some sort of respect rather than mutilating them like a certain Hastini does."

"Also, I saw you during the Lostathon Campaign. The only reason you survived that suicidal charge of yours and the reason for your demotion was because of my cavalry. Running into a lot of spiky objects headfirst is going to get you killed." Now Galderian was smirking, amused at Delphius' sudden change in confidence as his jeering smile vanished.

"So, as I was saying, Pepin requests your presence."

***

Once again, a few squadrons were in the assembly area, becoming the vanguard for the travelling column of Great Knights. Delphius appeared more scornful than usual, undoubtedly contemplating how Galderian's belittlement of him was justified, seeing as Delphius had accidentally killed half a squadron with that decision and was never given another position of command. If only the Great Knights actually recognised brutality as a good asset and promoted the ones with the best torture methods - Hastini would be commander-in-chief then. But they'll never understand how fun it is. Never.

Seeing Delphius staring blankly at the ground until his face began twisting into a sadistic smile, Vince tapped him on the shoulder to wake him from his trance-like state.

"Hey, Delphius, wake up. You were asleep an hour ago according to Parean." Vince gave a reassuring grin to Delphius.

"After all these years of fighting, how have we not become used to fatigue?" Delphius articulated his rhetorical question.

"We probably experience ridiculous amounts of sleep deprivation because Pepin knows that we can actually accomplish something, but we've had enough practice to... I don't know, not die of it?" They both started to jest at this notion, but Delphius had catalogued that thought in his mind: if only brutality was rewarded.

Once more, Delphius' train of thought was interrupted, this time by Pepin, who was now addressing Vince's squadron. "Greetings again Vince. It seems that Samson will still remain inactive for around a day, but his wounds aren't serious in any way, they only seared off part of his skin." Pepin informed Vince, who subsequently replied "Yes sir."

At a single horn signal, the vanguard marched out, while numerous carts and the main body of Great Knights trailed behind them. Along the road, several squadrons were strategically placed in order to spot any Crawler movements, while remaining sufficiently close to each other to retreat rapidly to the encampment and request reinforcements; this was a lesson Pepin had learnt from the ambush a few hours ago and he was not intending to lose more of his best troops.

***

The moist afternoon air of the north was beginning to result in small patches of mist materialising along the rugged road. The vanguard once again passed through their checkpoint at the petrified Wingidons, where the furthest out squadron commanded by Captain Rivinle.

"Ah, on time as usual general." Rivinle taunted Pepin in his typically arrogant voice, tapping his foot impatiently as he looked at the makeshift sundial his soldiers had stuck in the ground. "I believe that's fifteen minutes late. The Council won't be happy to hear..."

"Captain Rivinle, do you truly believe that the Council even care about this expedition if they send so few troops, most of whom are inadequately equipped, to their allies in a distant kingdom? A fifteen minute delay is no reason to decry your general when the given time of arrival was a rough estimate" Pepin uttered sternly “Don’t think that being an experimental Juggernaut raises your position above a general.”

“Oh General, please do forgive me for being superior to you in every way but rank.” Rivinle leered at Pepin sarcastically, simply waiting for Pepin to unleash his anger, another point which Rivinle could then threaten with reporting. His loyalty to the Great Knights was unswerving, making him the perfect informat on the progress of the mission for the council. The merciless experimental Juggernaut programme had made sure of it.

Ignoring Rivinle’s blatant insubordination, Pepin posed another question, this time actually expecting a comprehensive answer, “Have there been any signs of Crawlers movement?”

“Of course not! We’ve been waiting for several hours doing nothing productive. Now hurry up the column. This is getting ridiculous.” Rivinle’s discontent at what he deemed as a useless position was very pronounced.

“Good” came Pepin's terse reply. “Continue advancing!” he bellowed to the rest of the vanguard.

***

The dense fog intensified as the vanguard plodded on through the stone-ridden mud track that marked the first roads into Rovaltinny. Bows and arrows were scattered everywhere, found near the remnants of Wingidons who had presumably been petrified and shattered as they dropped to the ground. Strangely enough, there were no pools of poison this time, but instead lumps of flesh which emitted a pungent odour and had almost the same sort of chemical oozing out. The road itself, aside from intrusions of rock, appeared to have multiple speed bumps embedded in the mud, crisscrossing the entire path, at least within the radius that was visible to them.

“Do the Wingidons even know how to build roads? How hard is it for a society that lives in the mountains to gather stone and pave at least part of a road on their own territory?” One captain commented as she almost tripped over a bump in the ground.

Parean, being the fountain of all knowledge, answered her “They don't use their roads for anything other than cargo and visitors, but from what the records of the Great Knight expedition show, they were at least maintained better than this.”

"Really? Have they just not bothered to look after their roads and decided to be lazy and just fly around everywhere without realising that some people can't fly!" the captain quipped.

Determined to clarify any misinterpretation, Parean continued "Then again Vectiam, the Wingidons don't have much of a quarrying industry either. The statues they create aren't the best and they're not known for their strength, so transportation of stone would be more difficult and expensive, and frankly roads would be a worthless investment in their trade, and sector which the Rovalians will be unable to expand effectively given their isolated position and lack of nearby friendly civilisations."

"Fair enough, but the baggage train is still suffering from a few problems." Vectiam declared, gesturing at the uneven terrain, with multiple potholes that the wheels of their supply wagons could entrap themselves in.

"Agreed. This road does not deserve to be called a road. Plus, this weather isn't helping transportation one bit." Another captain came up from behind Vectiam, shaking her head as she observed the irregular mounds of earth scattered across everywhere - yet another obstacle to a fully-loaded wagon.

"Captain Yunathrad, I thought you were supposed to be escorting the rear of the convoy?" Vectiam queried, confused by her sudden, though welcome, intrusion.

"Well it seems that one of the wagons somehow lost broke its wheel and only my lieutenants can actually repair them, while the rest of my squadron is absolutely clueless and I couldn't actually trust them with delivering a message to Pepin that the rear is delayed." Yunathrad explained with a hint of frustration at the ineptness of her own soldiers, who were far from being experienced, "They're just ridiculously incompetent, they'd probably get lost in the fighting and go the other direction. I'd laugh at them all day if I wasn't the captain responsible for them. It's rather depressing." she sighed.

All three of them grimaced, reminiscing about the times that they were all training to be soldiers, when ridiculously strict standards of disciple were expected of them. "The good old days, when we were supposed to be able to fight properly before we were sent into combat." Vectiam snickered.

"Agreed, if only the Council cared about their distant allies slightly more." Parean beamed.

Yunathrad returned "Well, that's the Council for you. Any way, I should probably inform Pepin that..."

"Err, does anyone feel something moving beneath the ground? I can definitely feel some sort of vibration underneath my feet." Vectiam's tentative comment broke the air's light-heartedness.

"Movement? Are you sure?" Yunathrad asked in response, put on edge by her unexpected question.

Parean remained collected in her composure "Vectiam, I advise you step away from wherever you're standing, because you definitely do not want to be collapsed into some variety of pit."

Discreetly, Vectiam stepped off the spot on one of the mounds she had previously been standing on, staring at the earth as though anticipating something popping out onto the surface. "Hmm, that's unusual..."

***

In the meantime, Vince, Delphius, Nircurus, Galderian and Yaleris were all trudging through the all-enveloping fog, enduring Rivinle's incessant and spiteful fuming directed at Pepin, who was equally trying to survive Rivinle's unending stream of criticism.

"...Sending your best troops into an isolated corner away from available reinforcements? What sort of general does that? I'll tell you: a terrible general, who is utterly incompetent in command and cannot command his soldiers properly. Honestly, I should be in charge right now, not you. I would make a much superior general and actually be capable of genuine tactical manoeuvres which don't kill everyone. What idiot messes up so badly that he has to rely on one of his subordinate captains taking the initiative to save him? You clearly don't deserve..."

Intent on distracting himself, Delphius whispered to Galderian "Okay, I know I may have insulted you about talking about strategy too much Galderian, but Rivinle is such a... such a..."

"An egoistic, haughty, supercilious being who deserves to be left in a room alone with Hastini to be tortured to death? I think we can definitely both agree on that." Galderian snorted, finally aligning with Delphius for once. It was clear that almost everyone on the expedition loathed Rivinle as a ridiculously egoistic soldier, arrogantly disdainful of almost everyone else - seemingly a typical example of the Juggernaut mentality that had been drilled into him.

"Don't you just wish that something would just burst out of the ground and eat him?" Vince chipped into their conversation with equal, quiet enthusiasm. Delphius and Galderian both nodded in firm agreement.

"Why can't Pepin just kill Rivinle on the spot? It's not like he's done any good on this expedition; he's probably done much more worse than good in fact." Yaleris joined, also eager to show her dissatisfaction with the arrogant Juggernaut as everyone else.

"That's the problem." Now Nircurus had caught up to their whispering and was congregating with the walking line that had formed from the one-sided debate on how to treat Rivinle. "Rivinle and some of his soldiers are genuinely strong and Rivinle himself could potentially kill Pepin if he ever felt threatened by his presence. At the moment, it appears that he simply enjoys irritating Pepin with his comments to reinforce his superiority."

Everyone else shook their heads in disappointment

"Unfortunate, I know." Nircurus finished.

As the five of them continued ambling along the rough road, contemplating how to kill Rivinle, Vince inquired jokingly "Why can't you shut Rivinle down with some of your superior intellect or knowledge, or maybe Galderian?"

"Yet another complication. Rivinle hasn't lost a single battle he has participated in, the Juggernauts are usually deployed in relatively small taskforces, averaging around 20 per group, and they specialise in breaking through enemy lines, sabotage missions, ambushing enemy figures of command etcetera. The one major failure of Juggernauts was when they were sent to the Maxilla Peninsula, when only half of them returned alive, and according to reports, they were indefinitely shaken by what had happened, at least temporarily. Unfortunately for Galderian and I, Rivinle wasn't there, so I can't criticise him in any professional manner." Nircurus resolved in a depressed tone. Maybe Rivinle's arrogance was slightly justified.

"Well at least you're safe from criticism." Vince spoke up again after a moment of silence, with a volume still unheard by Rivinle.

In a concerned tone, Nircurus continued "Perhaps I am, but I'm significantly more concerned for Galderian than myself. If a Juggernaut was to take command of the expedition, such as Rivinle, one of their favourable tactics used a full frontal charge, which the enhanced Juggernauts can use to break through or at least disrupt any part of an enemy battle line. However, none of us here are Juggernauts, therefore we are much more likely to die. Whereas I would debate the order to charge, agree to it eventually, and then just use my own strategies anyway, I sometimes sense that Galderian quarrels too much with those he disagrees with over tactics, and will almost never compromise. With a Juggernaut, that sort of behaviour is quite dangerous."

"I suppose so" Vince shrugged "I doubt the Council will bother to send another Juggernaut if Rivinle is still alive, and Pepin will never relinquish control to him either."

"Let us hope so." Agreed Yaleris.

"Yeah, Pepin even has Tangeldis on his side, who's probably quite even matched against... wait, are those eyes?" Vince stared in the direction of the forest, looking into a bulbous pair of shining red eyes hidden deep within the fighting.

"Eyes? Please don't tell me there are more Crawlers now! I just cleaned my halberd! And now this visibility means that we can't actually see them." Yaleris groaned.

"No, I can only see one or two pairs, but it looks like they're-WHAT THE?"

The mound that Vince was standing on collapsed beneath his feet, revealing a small pit in the road.

The cries of multiple other soldiers erupted in the air from several points at the front of the convoy. "What's happening..."

Yaleris' question was cut short as the ground beneath Nircurus gave way, leaving him with his spear lodged into part of the soil in an attempt to prevent himself from falling in completely.

Further on, Pepin was finally saved from Rivinle’s persecution of him, when they were both dropped into pits of their own. "Well, at least this is better than before..." Pepin's relief suddenly evaporated as he felt a Crawler's jaw clench around his stocky leg, and begin tugging with tremendous force. Loud screams and yelps informed Pepin that there were more victims of this trap.

The Crawler bit deeper into his limb, digging its teeth into the metallic greave on his leg while it clawed at his unarmoured knee joint, causing Pepin to gasp in pain as it narrowly avoided the knee itself. Intent on freeing himself, he reached for his throwing axe at his side, just as he noticed that the Crawler was attempting to drag him further into a small tunnel reminiscent of a rabbit hole - only that the screams and growls emanating from within suggested that it was not rabbits, but something far worse, waiting inside.

"General!" A woman's voice screeched from above, clearly aggravated. With the speed of a lightning bolt, her spear pierced the Crawler's neck as it was about to disappear into its tunnel, taking Pepin along with it. The creature stopped pulling with as much force, narrowing its eyes in a sort of wince, allowing Pepin to smash his throwing axe diagonally into its head, dashing it's brains out and leaving a significant dent in the skull.

With his blood still pumping as though a chariot race was taking place in his body, Pepin slowly prised the dead Crawler's jaw open to release his leg. Luckily, the Crawler had not targeted his vulnerable kneecap, which was more exposed than his lower leg. This time, the spearwoman, who had effectively saved him from being devoured, reached her hand down to help the diminutive Pepin out of the pit.

"Thank you Tillecthel!" Pepin panted, blood still coursing through his arteries and veins. His legs scrambled up the crumbling soil back up onto the road while Tillecthel pulled him out.

"General, I'm sure this was a deliberate trap - almost all of the captains at the front of the convoy have been ensnared in some of these pits." Tillecthel informed him. As Pepin registered his surroundings, he saw multiple near-identical pits everywhere, some distributed evenly, others in concentrated locations where multiple captains had been conversing.

"They targeted all the captains? Any good news?" Pepin inquired.

"Well, Rivinle is dead sir. The Crawlers dragged him down one of the tunnels. I'm sure I could hear him screaming as he probably tore apart several Crawlers with his bare hands, so at least he was somewhat useful until the Crawlers most likely devoured him." Tillecthel proclaimed, somewhat ironically. Pepin let a small smile appear on his face. No matter how brutal a fate it was, he was sure that Rivinle deserved such punishment. There would not have been a more efficient and humiliating method to eliminate him.

***

Vince blinked and rubbed his eyes, slightly dizzy from falling. He could hear some commotion above, but no sound came out clearly.

Confounded, he scrolled his eyes around the small pit he had just collapsed into. Above the pit was Delphius, Galderian and Yaleris, but Nircurus was strangely not present.

"Vince, are you ok? Nircurus just fell into a hole similar to yours." Delphius's voice came through and Vince nodded, trying to stand up on his pain-riddled legs. Then he noticed a small hole at the lower side of the pit, sufficiently sized to allow a person to crawl through. "To crawl through..." Vince mumbled to himself as he slowly built up his deduction - a hole small enough for a...

"Crawler!" He exclaimed in panic.

The creature emerged from the tunnel, followed by a much larger Crawler with more prominent eyes. Without hesitation, Vince unsheathed his arming sword and plunged the sword deep into the first Crawler's chest as it leaped onto his torso, instantly killing it and leaving its body lying directly on top of him.

Impaired by the dead Crawler, Vince attempted to roll it off, only to feel his leg being dragged with surprising speed into the tunnel by the second Crawler.

Its jaw was fixed tightly around his leg armour, and Vince could sense the Crawler's saliva as it encased his leg while he was wrenched into the tunnel. Recognising that if he was dragged in, he would be completely defenceless, he began kicking around his legs and stabbed his arming sword into the entrance of the tunnel, trying to pull his weapon to wrench himself free. Now unaware of his surroundings, Vince concentrated on hoisting himself back out of the death hole, pushing the entrance back with the full might of his hands. He did not intend to be eaten alive, or at least just yet.

***

"Something's got Vince's leg!" Delphius warned his fellow soldiers still on the ground. Whether by sheer coincidence or perhaps deliberate intent, both of their captains had fallen prey to this pit trap. Nircurus was being aided by Galderian and Yaleris, who were using their spears to skewer the single Crawler attempting to kill Nircurus. Vince, on the other hand, had no advantage of spears - his soldiers used primarily axes - and he had faced two Crawlers.

"Edlothang! Anyone! Help me dig a hole above this spot here! We need to kill that Crawler!" Delphius yelled in his most commanding voice. Obeying his commands, the squadron brought up their shovels and began demolishing the exact area on the road. Edlothang sprinted up from behind, catching Delphius in the process. The two of them were fixated on the digging spot, ready to stab through the point where they estimated the Crawler would be. A few other Knights had taken to encouraging Vince to continue holding, with one even jumping in to help the effort of dragging him back out of the tunnel.

As the squadron continued to dig, a scale-like texture cropped out of the ground, revealing the bulky Crawler. Edlothang had her sword poised to stab into the Crawler's back, while Delphius had his axe ready to decapitate it. Their strikes went down simultaneously, ending Vince's struggle completely. The captain shuffled out of the hole tentatively. He was still alive.

***

“Hmm, that's unusual, there may be something lurking underneath the road.” Vectiam spoke quietly.

“Captain Parean, do you think that we’re being watched? The fog makes it easier for them to ambush us.” Uldarlas questioned her, with a similar level of caution. "Even that sign there, saying 'Welcome to Rovaltinny' has some air of danger."

“Potentially…” Parean trailed off into an eerie silence, alleviated by the mutterings of other soldiers. “Remember, simply stay vigilant and…”

“WHAT THE-!” a sudden scream from the front of the column smashed the relative quiet. The three captains twisted their heads around at the sound, which was followed by a cascade of similar grunts and yells. “What's happening?” Yunathrad whispered, her voice barely audible.

Just as Parean was about to suggest something, the mound beneath her crumpled into oblivion, dropping her into a deepened pothole as she slumped to its side. “Did this just happen... to everyone?” Yunathrad puzzled, confounded to an even greater extent than before. Parean groaned in response, attempting to stagger back onto her two feet.

Exactly when she reached out her hands for her soldiers to pull her out, a Crawler burst out of the rubble of the dirt road, clawing at her armoured heel and yanking it off balance. Parean once again crumpled to the side, fumbling around as she dropped her shield.

The Crawler dragged her foot into the smaller passage it had presumably constructed itself. Unwilling to suffer being forced into a position of disadvantage and devoured by a single Crawler, Parean retrieved her shield and jabbed the point straight at the Crawler's eye, gouging it out and leaving the creature writhing around as it slipped back through its tunnel. Mostly unscathed, she clamoured back out of the pit, rubbing her heel as she did so.

"A Crawler? Why are they intelligent enough to attack all our captain in a trap?" Uldarlas probed, her voice significantly more nervous.

"This is certainly worrying. If they had succeeded in killing me, that would have disrupted the chain of command even further and caused more chaos." Parean reflected "If they are targeting all the captains, that is certainly worse."

Parean's fears were confirmed as, seconds later, a pit opened up beneath Yunathrad, swallowing her. A second later, she screamed in pain as the Crawler that lay in wait tore around her ankles, securing its jagged teeth and retreating into the tunnel. Parean, lacking a weapon with sufficient reach, launched her hand out for Yunathrad to hold on. Seeing that Parean alone could not free her comrade from the grasp of the Crawler, Vectiam thrust her halberd downwards, intending to spear the Crawler directly.

It was to no avail.

Facing an enhanced Crawler, or possibly more than one, the efforts of Parean and a few of her soldiers, who were equally attempting to rescue Yunathrad, momentarily collapsed, dropping Yunathrad to the base of the pit.

No longer facing resistance, the Crawler flung her into the tunnel, escaping just in time for Vectiam's halberd to punch a hole clean into Yunathrad's abdomen.

Yunathrad's mouth opened to let out a gasp, but no sound came out. Vectiam stood there, shocked to the core as the revelation came to her: she had killed her own friend. Her halberd remained embedded directly inside Yunathrad, shaking with Vectiam's trembling hands. Parean and her soldiers stared in disbelief, slowly reaching back in the hole to evacuate Yunathrad's lifeless body, which the Crawler had left behind.

Intending to break the deathly silence that surrounded her, Uldarlas commented: "Welcome to Rovaltinny indeed - the land of stone and death."

Chapter Five - A Broken Wing Edit

"Four captains have been killed sir, all at the front half of the column: Rivinle Linburec, Yunathrad Huhang, Saucifel Ijovlar and Cilenu Pilcelet. Two captains have been incapacitated: Osgaron Ristalth, who needs to have his leg amputated, and Aiiror Wouzhing, who is still unconscious. Another five have been injured, but are not in a serious condition: Vince Sihanouk, Parean Jagmoris, Shaozkar Balseju, Quargerin Norsiori..."

Pepin was still scrunching up his eyes and reopening them, trying to clear his head as Tangeldis was relaying information to him. "How had they targeted specifically captains and figures of command, rather than just any soldier?" he mused.

"General? Is something wrong?" Tangeldis had picked up on Pepin's unusual lack of attentiveness.

After a brief pause, Pepin returned "Those Crawlers must have targeted all the captains deliberately. There is no way that all 17 victims, including myself and five other unharmed captains, were by coincidence in some position of command. They must have planned out a trap below the road, which means they have obviously become significantly more intelligent."

"Commanding the rear of the column, I had no problems of Crawlers specifically, but the baggage train was immensely difficult to manoeuver around the pits left behind. At least we are actually in the town of Blebfennas, or Wingsgate as some locals call it, so we are closer to Roval than previously anticipated." Tangeldis stated.

There was no hiding of the unease both of them felt. They had been thrust into a post of command simply because Pepin was the only available Great Knight commander with an interest in the north (his father had died on a failed expedition 8 years ago) and Tangeldis the only competent and sufficiently loyal subordinate delegated to Pepin. In truth, neither thought that the Eclipse Expedition was a force to be reckoned with: half were completely inexperienced and fresh out of training; a quarter were fanatically loyal to the Great Knight council and refused to even remain in the same camp as Pepin's contingent; and the remaining quarter, who could actually be trusted, were overworked to compensate for the incompetence of the expedition as a whole.

Their current situation was worsening - not only had their only nearby allies disappeared, but their chain of command had been culled even further. Now they were a bumbling body of soldiers failing at their objective and entering a devoid land. "Oh how fortunate I have been." he sarcastically praised the Council. "All they do is sit in a castle and decide which potential reformer to throw into the wild to be devoured by some creature, while they lounge about in their mansions. Bourgeoisie pigs."

He wished that more of the Great Knights had the tolerance to allow more people to step out of The Great Chain, to be free from restrictions on ambition, belief, individuality. "For society to function, why would everyone have a set place in society? Jygarn Invincibilis worked his way up the ranks from a peasant to a governor; my father was once just a peasant as well. Why are we bound by such rules?"

Tired of his own pondering, Pepin excused himself from the command tent and stepped outside into the chilly Rovalian air. Around him, the town of Blebfennas lay in ruins. Whatever army had occupied it, they had done an exemplary job of wiping out the populace. The crude huts and tree houses of poorer Rovalian villagers had been burnt to ash, and the larger houses were all partially collapsed. Even the location sign, rare for a Rovalian town, saying "You are now in Wingsgate" had simply broken. The conditions of the buildings were simply unsuitable to accommodate anyone. Instead, they had constructed a camp in a makeshift state, one that was ready to move out as soon as sunrise came, and with most of the wagons left unpacked and strewn across at accessible locations. From each tent wafted the pungent scent of upturned mud and likely some form of refuse which unwitting knights had accidentally trod on, all of which caked the boots of every single soldier drifting through the camp. "The Rovalians can fly, so I presume they wouldn't care about the condition of their roads, especially not if they have to clean up after random animals were leaving their waste behind." The thick fog that had seemingly blanketed the entire region had remained fixated over the encampment, including the separated camp that lay a few hundred metres down the road towards the Rovalian capital. "Onward to Roval we go, but sleep comes first."

***

He rose up from the body, now unrecognisable from its previous state; the cranial fluid congregating in a bloody pool which was once a person's head. In a conscious decision, he dabbed his gauntleted finger into the foul mixture, watching it as it soaked into the ground, already saturated by an hour of unceasing slaughter. He brought his hand back up, and licked the concoction, wrinkling his nose at the taste, and yet relishing the taste of a dead victim. Preying on the weak had never tasted so good.

"What the...oh..." Vince jolted out of his temporary bunk in the complete darkness of the night, repulsed at the torturous nightmare that was playing through his mind again. "It's just a dream...no one...no one tastes their dead enemies...no Great Knight at least..."

***

"Hey Samson, how's your foot?" Several members of Vince's squadron had entered the medical tent, visiting their lieutenant in the aftermath of breakfast.

"I am completely fine, it seems that any damage from those pools of venom was minute." He replied confidently. "Being transported in a wagon was probably worse than walking, but at least it saved me from destroying my sabatons with mud."

Delphius snorted, smiling vaguely "Yeah, instead one of them was corroded by poison, so here's your present from General Pepin the Short: a pair of leather boots."

Samson's lack of enthusiasm for what seemed to be a downgrade of his own equipment was rather pronounced. "Ah, thanks" he spoke tersely, reaching out from his temporary bed. "Anyway, why would they delegate time to heal me if I'm almost fit to fight. They should be concentrating all their medical resources to help someone like Osgaron. Apparently he wasn't wearing any greaves and the Crawler completely mangled his legs. Now, his wounds are septic and one of the legs need to be amputated to stop the infection spreading!"

"Classic Osgaron, not wearing any armour and then being brutally attacked. What a lad!" Delphius jeered in laughter, with most of the other Knights raising broad smirks.

"Well, we'll be off soon on yet another scouting mission, this time with four squadrons, because that will definitely help us be stealthy." Vince commented with sarcasm.

"Typical Great Knight logic. Follow the leader, run around blindly, get yourself killed - that applies to most people on this expedition." Samson expressed, with an element of irony. Years of life under what they experienced as tyranny, foolishness and elitism had heavily influenced how they perceived the world, and how they made fun of it - with satire. "Hierarchical structures are ridiculous. All the council ever justify it with is with maintaining 'order'. Order? Can you believe that?"

"As long as it keeps us safe, I don't mind it." Edlothang responded to Samson's political statement.

"But it doesn't." He replied "We're not safe. Or at least, not safe from the strongest, the most brutal, and those who claim that they are at the top of the Great Chain."

"The Great Chain. What a useless concept." Delphius concurred "We can't be ourselves. Instead, we are supposed be, what? A single part of society? Who even designed this? Shouldn't we be allowed to do what we want?"

Vince initially remained silent. He acknowledged everything: how flawed this system of a Great Chain was, how collectivism could not sustain itself. Regardless, he felt a certain unease whenever this subject ever materialised.

After a long pause, which everyone had used to broach an appropriate response, Vince finally spoke up again "So, what would we have in place of a Great Chain? Wouldn't democracy help?"

"Democracy? The only reason I know what that word means was because it's Hellenic! Why would a mob rule be any better?" Delphius retaliated "What we need is a ruler who can bring true equality, not some uneducated fools who say they want more money!"

"Which is why we need equality." Samson continued "Our leaders want us to be ignorant so they can justify that they are the only people who can lead without causing 'chaos'. Yet, I would infinitely prefer 'chaos' to this unequal, false, maliciously-maintained 'order'."

***

"Order or Chaos? Which is better?" The question had been embedded itself into Vince's mind, prompting all the political arguments within himself to start conflicting. He was from a privileged background, the third son of a knight who had inherited part of the properties of Malendor Sihanouk, one of the founders of the Great Knights, and so he had never had any problems of discrimination or poverty. But for Samson and Delphius, Vince knew that their upbringing had been significantly worse. Samson had been at the whim of his master Lord Beriaur for the entirety of his childhood. Delphius had abusive, alcoholic parents until the age of 7, and then he was sent to work for Beriaur as well.

“Vince, keep up! You're falling behind!” Another captain stirred him from his meditation.

“Sorry Quargerin,” he replied “I'm just thinking.”

“Thinking about what? The meaning of life, the universe and everything? Please specify.” Quargerin inquired comically, almost leering.

“Would you prefer anarchy to our current political situation? As in, would you prefer ‘chaos’ or ‘order’?”

Caught off guard by Vince’s political question, Quargerin took her time to respond. “Anarchy seems just as bad as tyranny, but for different reasons. I’m not so ill-content with our current system, but that's probably because I'm Vinusian, so the Vinus Region is partially autonomous and doesn't have to follow the strict rules they have in the north. From what I know, neither system works particularly well."

Quargerin's mundane answer did nothing to quell his concerns; it may have been the same ideal he held, but neither him nor Quargerin could fully sympathise with the wish for Anarchy that both Samson and Delphius held dear.

"You should still be concentrating on our mission rather than trying to gauge politics." Quargerin attempted to bring Vince back out of his self-questioning again.

He nodded in response and continued marching, surveying further up the road. Above, clouds were materialising from the remnants of the fog, mutating into increasingly colossal grey leviathans hovering in the sky, preparing to unleash its payload of precipitation. "More rain. That's going to make marching even worse than usual." Someone muttered behind him.

The dejected Great Knight vanguard pressed on its unrelenting march a few kilometres north west. So far, there had been no Crawlers, but all the same, no live Rovalians either. In fact, not even a single Rovalian corpse existed - lumps of flesh and piles of bones were scattered everywhere, but there were no intact bodies, just fallen statues.

The column fell silent once again as they were stunned by another large group of petrified Rovalians, this time almost 40 in number, arrayed in defensive positions on the road. The shattered scree of what was presumably once a few Rovalian soldiers similarly lay on the road. Several Knights were shaking their head in remorse, sighing about their fallen, yet distant, allies.

Suddenly, a withery, screechy voice pierced the respectful silence. "Ah good mage, I believe you have yet to fulfill your promise of kin-AAAGGGHH!" Whoever, or whatever was speaking, was clearly in pain, perhaps even being tortured, and only a minute distance from the left of the column.

Apprehensive, Vince and Quargerin both turned towards that direction, signalling for their squadrons to fan out into groups to locate the source of the screaming. "Shaozkar, keep your squadron on guard here." Quargerin whispered to the other captain.

"You idiot! How is your voice even that loud? I've never heard someone scream so loud from being ironed on the back, or at least not that I was actually concerned about. Do you know that the only reason you're even alive is because you're going to be used for some more experimental purposes?" Hissed what was presumably the 'good mage'.

"Yes, experimentation to make me truly worthy of being a Rovalian King!" The other replied, completely ignorant of the mage's pronounced hatred towards him.

"I would definitely like to torture you to death you Rovalian scumbrain!" The mage retorted.

"Rovalian?" The word flashed into Vince's mind once again as he edged closer to the two. There was a possibility of saving the Wingidon who sounded so demented. With a low-lying motion, he crept up towards them, gathering his troops in a circle around the mage and Rovalian. Peeking through the roots, ferns and trunks, his jaw dropped noiselessly as he processed what his eyes were informing him of: a walking skeleton, wielding a bone staff and emitting an aura of darkness, while a black frill protruded out of its neck; and a Wingidon, wearing a mysterious mask, boasting more wounds than Vince could count and sporting a pair of folded wings, one of which was battered and almost leathery in appearance, completely different to its counterpart. Unnerved, Vince glanced at Delphius, who was crouched directly behind the distracted mage, ready to pounce.

"I suppose your brain deterioration would be useful for us to study, but that doesn't change the fact that I want to torture to death right ..." Delphius' axe smashed directly through the skeleton mage's exposed, pearl-white skull, instantly shattering it into a thousand fragments as a dark red aura fled from its crippled body. The Wingidon screamed in shock and began running in the opposite direction, only for Quargerin and her squadron to block him off. Intimidated by the presence of over 50 armed soldiers with superior weaponry, he raised his arms in a sign of surrender. "You don't work for Chaos, do you?" The Wingidon questioned on an extremely timid tone.

"Chaos? Who or what is Chaos?" Quargerin returned with her own question, just as confounded as all the others in her party.

The Rovalian replied hesitantly "Chaos? I don't ... I don't really, er .. know. They call themselves the Undead Army or something, hehe, and they promised me ... er ... to be King... when I invited them to my own ... er ... Kingdom ... My Kingdom, he he he..."

"Sorry, you're the Rovalian King?" Vince interrupted the Rovalian's stuttering and repetitive speech. "You have no appearance of royalty, and why would only one skeleton mage be guarding you if you were the leader of the kingdom they just conquered? In fact, what is your name?"

"My name, my name is err... King Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti, and I ... er... I am a king ... King ... of all Rovalians... and that mage was leading me to my...er, throne room!" The Wingidon yelled almost in realisation. "Here, here look... my crown... see I am the king."

Ashangul pulled out a shodily-made crude lump of seemingly golden material, encrusted with a single, unpolished fragment of granite. Clutching it with both scarred hands, he presented the "crown" to Vince and Quargerin, beaming ridiculously. Both of them were glancing nervously at each other.

"Sorry King Ashangul for my impetuousness, but why on Inamorta is there a stone in the centre of your 'crown'?" Delphius broke in jereringly. Vince smiled at Delphius' subtle imitation of Samson.

"Why, this is a... er... stone, a gem stone!" Ashangul blurted out.

"A ruddy lump of granite is not a gem stone" Delphius scoffed.

"Who made this abomination of a crown?" Quargerin inquired mockingly, attempting to bend it slightly. A small protrusion shattered off instantly.

"I did! No one gave me a crown so I , er... went into a mountain and found some... er... gold." Ashangul answered in an agitated fashion.

"Yeah, gold alright." Quargerin smirked as she snapped off another fragment. "Look how brittle and hard this is. It's pyrite - fool's gold."

"Are you mistaking me for a fool you...er...ungrateful wench!" Ashangul screamed at her, snatching the Crown back out of her hands.

Quargerin raised her eyebrows at Ashangul's bizarre reaction, and then replied calmly "I have a friend named Delphius here, and he would be very willing to split your skull in half, so I advise you shut up or you will end up dead." Ashangul glared at her momentarily, and then glanced around him. All of the Great Knights had their weapons at the ready, prepared to end this insane being once and for all.

"Is this how you treat a king?" He exclaimed, raising a shrivelled fist.

"Listen, your royal highness, we need you to take us to come back with us so you can meet our leader and show us what happened to your Kingdom. We are the Great Knights and it us our sworn duty to protect all of those too weak to defend themselves." Edlothang's soothing voice instantly tranquilised Ashangul, who stopped shaking his fists at them. Amused, Delphius snorted at the end of Edlothang's last statement. "Because we definitely don't just bulldoze any weak nation that doesn't immediately surrender when we turn up on their doorstep." He whispered to Vince, who grinned in response.

Quargerin articulated an order for the soldiers: "Well then, let's bring the lunatic back with us. He has quite a lot of explaining to do."

***

"So, you're informing me that this Rovalian, named Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti, who is very clearly mentally disabled and crippled, is their King?" Pepin's surprise radiated through his voice.

"That is what he claims sir, although whether there is any truth in it is dubious." Quargerin responded. "I presume he needs to be interrogated then."

"He is the first living Rovalian that we have seen on this expedition, but our interrogation must be more cautious. We can't afford to lose any information if he attempts suicide based on mental instability, or if he attempts to flee and returns to the organisation known as 'Chaos' or the 'Undead Army'." Pepin replied confidently.

Quargerin saluted and steeped towards the exit "Well then, good luck talking to this...false King."

Chapter Six - Desolation Edit

"Good to meet you your majesty." Pepin enunciated gently. He raised his hand with a similar speed to Ashangul, who sat on a stool opposite him, cradling himself in his own arms.

"You shall address me as King Ashangul of Rovaltinny, nothing more, nothing less...I mean as Ashangul Hasetenya ... err... Hasetenya ... Nigisti ... Chaos ... KING ... I am a king!" Ashangul's fragmented speech and bizarre accentuation was lost on Pepin's confused expression. He glanced back at Tangeldis, who was sitting patiently behind him, and Rethdurk, who was glaring at Ashangul.

"This Wingidon is very clearly insane." Rethdurk whispered to Tangeldis, with his eyes still fixated on Ashangul. Pepin let out a sigh as he turned back to his subject. Now, Ashangul was continually jerking his muscles around, as though in a spasm attack.

"King Ashangul, do you think that you can tell me what happened to your kingdom?" Pepin queried the confused Rovalian, trying to maintain an atmosphere of calm.

"My kingdom...yes...er...my kingdom is...err...mine! It's mine! Err.. Tolip... you... never...I am king now! Hahahaha! Yes, I am king! Do you hear err....Tolip...I am the rightful king...Chaos...I have commanded Chaos...This kingdom is mine!" Ashangul burst out again into an ecstasy of laughter.

"If I were you Pepin, I would just kill this lunatic. If not, you may just end up going insane yourself." Rethdurk commented again.

"I know." Pepin replied. "But we can't."

"I find it hard to believe that this Wingidon will provide us with any more clear information. Something tells me that he was never mentally stable in the first place, and judging by his wounds, he has been tortured significantly." Rethdurk remarked, but this time with more seriousness.

"How is your sixth sense able to detect his previous mental state? " a genuinely curious Tangeldis inquired.

"Well, you can probably infer it from his crown." Rethdurk held up the irregular mass of fool's gold, complete with a granite piece in the centre. "I honestly don't think that Rovalian crowns are anywhere near as bad as this, and apparently it was self sourced, so no one helped him create it. Therefore no one thought he was King, hence he may have been slightly insane, thinking he was indeed royalty, and possibly requested aid from what he calls 'Chaos, to overthrow the Rovalians'."

"Well, Vince and Quargerin did report that to me, so I suppose it does make sense." Pepin contemplated Rethdurk's theory.

"Actually, he may be able to give a definitive answer now if you ask him." Rethdurk informed the general. "It looks like you barely need me to explain myself any more. Excellent!" The voice in Rethdurk's head exclaimed. "After 15 years or so of possession by a spirit that barely matures, I think I can explain myself Tarramiso-Katos." Rethdurk replied to the voice silently.

"Using my longer name then? Well then Lord Rethdurk von Kark, I see once again that I could not have chosen a better host! Although, if you were initially stronger, I could definitely have been more powerful. But, you can't have everything." Tarramiso-Katos snapped back in a playful manner. "In terms of being conscious though, I'm actually a year older."

"Sorry to interrupt your, ahem, 'sixth sense regeneration' Rethdurk, but could you please send a messenger to Parean, Nircurus and Hastini to move their detachments out." Pepin broke Rethdurk's internal dialogue with the spirit of Tarramiso-Katos, who he simply named Katos.

"Oh, yes sir, of course." Rethdurk rushed out of the tent awkwardly. "Not your finest excuse for talking with me, but I guess it makes sense to stick with it." Katos laughed.

***

"Their king, well, has a crown that probably imitates that of the Eclipsors to the south, which the Rovalians have apparently fought against in several skirmishes, but never been overly aggressive to. It represents the very best of Rovalian smithery and even compared to our metallurgy, is quite impressive!"

"Hmm" Parean scratched her head as she continued reading a transcribed copy of the journal of a Great Knight Adventurer who had discovered Rovaltinny with his party over 50 years ago.

"Salutations Parean" Nircurus entered her command tent. He was already equipped with his full armour and clutched his short spears in his right hand.

"Hello Nircurus!" Parean lifted her head up briefly, gave a small smile to Nircurus, before turning back to her book. "On the previous reconnaissance mission, Vince and Quargerin discovered a single Rovalian guarded by a skeleton mage who was torturing him. When they freed him, the Rovalian subsequently claimed to be King, giving a poorly-made 'crown' as evidence."

"Judging by that journal, the Rovalian was clearly lying then?" Nircurus intrigued.

"Most likely he was insane, because there is no way that a crown described as 'the very best of Rovalian smithery' would end up as a lump of fool's gold" she nodded.

"Excuse me captains, but Rethdurk has informed us that our squadrons are now preparing to scout, alongside Hastini and her group." Yaleris announced.

"Yay! Hastini!" Parean exclaimed with heavily-fortified sarcasm. "I suppose I should get all my equipment then. Don't you think that it's somewhat unfortunate that we can no longer afford to kill Hastini, who is useless as a sadistic deterrent to others now that we aren't fighting genuine people?" She posed her question to Nircurus.

"Yes, her caustic personality will only worsen the morale of the expedition." Nircurus replied.

***

Water poured down from the heavens as the beastly black cloud above relieved its burden. The wind brutally pummeled the surrounding trees, thrashing the grand structures of nature about, while sporadic bursts of thunder illuminated the shrouded afternoon mist. Beleaguered by the constant rain, Parean wrapped her cloak further around herself, narrowing her eyes to protect them from the relentless hail of water. Rivers of mud engulfed the already soiled boots of the miserable knights as they plodded through the squelching ground.

“We’re only three or four kilometres away from the south gate of Roval. Apparently, the city is irregularly shaped due to the Valley partially separating the West and East sections, and the south east has a lot of farmland before a reasonably large district.” she yelled, attempting to communicate with Nircurus.

“I thought Roval was much more than a few kilometres away, almost like 30 or something!” Uldarlas exclaimed in surprise.

“Well Uldarlas, that would probably be the East Gate you are referring to, because going around the multiple mountains which border the roads would take much longer. Sending us on there would be incredibly ridiculous, given our lack of supplies, numbers and mountaineering equipment.” Parean addressed Uldarlas.

“Basically Uldarlas, you're wrong.” Lobaten stated jokingly. Uldarlas glared at him amusingly, twisting her head right in spite of the torrential rain and wind.

Remaining curious, Uldarlas intrigued again “Captain Parean, do you think that the enemy will attack us now, or maybe even the Serpentine?”

“The Crawlers are apparently native, but there are also skeleton mages, which so far appear to be in small numbers as our expedition has yet to encounter more than one. I vouch that we will not encounter them in these weather conditions provided we remain on the road.” Parean returned.

Speculatively, Uldarlas probed further “Will we encounter any Serpentine?”

Lobaten elbowed her on her right side, irritated by Uldarlas’ incessant questioning. “Could you please stop asking questions for at least a minute. In fact, you’ve repeated that last question at least twice now!”

"Well, maybe I'm genuinely interested in whether we actually encounter any Serpentine." Uldarlas retorted.

"Uldarlas, I've already informed you about this." Parean sighed with an air of slight annoyance, smiling ironically at her subordinate. "Sometimes I wonder why you haven't been imprisoned by the Great Knights for asking too many questions" she added sarcastically, grinning as she did so.

"I just hope that they haven't noticed yet." Uldarlas replied jokingly.

A sudden gust of wind smashed directly into them, followed by a loose branch, which snapped off and dropped directly down on Lobaten. Slightly panicked, he rushed forward to avoid it, only to slip over in the torrential rain on a patch of mud, causing him to lurch further forward, trip and collide with the mud.

Bemused, Uldarlas cackled maniacally at the collapsed Lobaten, who was still attempting to push himself out of the muddy quagmire he had tripped into. He swore as he spat out a mouthful of sludge, coughing and retching as he settled back on his feet shakily in the wind. Parean, more intent on helping one of her best soldiers rather than ridiculing him, patted him on the back, and grimaced as she saw his entire front side layered with muck.

"What happened there Lobaten, did you just try to eat from a pile of dung?" Hastini flouted sneeringly, while her companions giggled and snorted as they beheld the mud-caked Lobaten.

Lobaten gritted his teeth and made an offensive gesture at Hastini's group. "Lobaten", Parean whispered quietly as she tapped the humiliated knight on the shoulder, "I acknowledge that you desire to torture them to death, but at the moment, that is not necessary. We can rip them all to shreds and administer the 'thousand cuts' method on them when we are in a suitable situation, but not when we are marching and you have just tripped over into the mud."

Still frustrated, Lobaten grunted as he unclenched his fists. Parean could still hear the raucous, vulgar and obnoxious taunts that Hastini and her troops were still throwing around to describe Lobaten. "I hope they die a painful death soon" she surmised.

"I have to admit though, that was quite funny." Uldarlas chortled gleefully, to which Lobaten simply elbowed her stomach with deliberate force.

"Just please be quiet Uldarlas, or I'll want to kill you as well." Lobaten growled, muttering a few other curses directed at Uldarlas and Hastini's squadron under his breath.

"Yes Uldarlas, please don't irritate him further." Parean instructed the still-giggling Uldarlas in a controlled tone, to which Uldarlas immediately fell silent.

***

"Why are they even bickering and insulting each other over an accident?" Yaleris questioned rhetorically, frowning at all the soldiers guffawing at the sight of a muddy Lobaten.

Nircurus answered regardless "They are people, and people cause a frustratingly large number of problems for each other. The day when they will be content with every single person is very unlikely to come in over 2000 years."

"Unless we kill most of them. That way, this world would be much better!" Yaleris joked, raising a sly smile from Nircurus.

"Agreed" Galderian commented as he also stared at the ridiculing behind him "I suggest 50% of the population should be killed in a typical selective fashion! That way, we can eliminate all the bigots in society." He smirked sarcastically.

“We would have to commit genocide more than once to handle overpopulation, but otherwise I see absolutely nothing wrong with it” The three of them chuckled at their new, utterly satirical, theory of solving the problems of the world.

“Speaking of genocide, the gate to Roval is just around there…” Yaleris stopped in her tracks as she surveyed the final stretch of swampy pathway behind the slight bend. More than 2,000 petrified Wingidons and many more fragments of broken stone, detached limbs and lumps of decaying flesh littered the site. Arrows were peppered everywhere and pools of poison still scarred the remnants of the road. At the gate itself, the Wingidon statue, the standard of the Wingidon army, had crumbled into dust.

Immediately, Nircurus ordered his soldiers to fan out to investigate the battlefield, while sending a message down to the rest of the column.

Blood, flesh and feathers. “An unusual combination” Nircurus reflected. Several of the characteristically feathered wings of the Theryn-like Rovalians had been torn off or somehow detached from the bodies. “Where are their bodies?” he puzzled, searching around for any sign of an intact corpse. There were none.

“Captain Nircurus, do you know what this ‘Chaos’ has done with the Wingidon bodies? After a battle like this, surely some corpses must remain” a soldier inquired.

“They could have disposed of the corpses, or perhaps the Crawlers devoured them. I’m similarly confused about this Menegar.” Nircurus responded, still examining the shattered remains of a petrified Wingidon. The expression that was permanently carved on to her face was one of determination, but also desperation. “I suspect that they were mounting a last stand against the Chaos invasion, which has apparently… well, beaten us to the Rovalians. They have most certainly captured Roval, and similarly to Blebfennas, where we had previously set up camp, they must have razed a substantial portion of the city and massacred its population. Given that the Western half of Rovaltinny has a greater population, I suspect that they have mostly abandoned the city and begun advancing further westwards.” He proposed his hypothesis to Menegar.

“So, are we too late?” Menegar quivered.

Concerned, Nircurus replied “Yes, and it currently seems that Rovaltinny will fall completely to the Chaos onslaught. Our best hope is to find any survivors to regroup with, but I doubt that our punitive expedition will be able to recapture Rovaltinny.”

Menegar stuttered, shaken by this revelation: “We’ve failed…”

***

“The Chaos army has likely wiped out all Rovalian resistance in the South-Eastern provinces of Rovaltinny and captured their capital, which has presumably been exterminated. They probably intended to split the Rovalian forces in two, since they deployed their main offensive up from the south east, rather than the east, where the Rovalians previously believed to be the point of attack and stationed a large contingent accordingly. As a result, the East pocket will be destroyed in a matter of days without sufficient supplies or communication with the capital, especially given that their opponents must have a large number of anti-air infantry. Whoever the Chaos general is, they are definitely intelligent.” Nircurus relayed his hypothesis to Parean.

“I have to admit, their rapid advancement and strategy is proving to be very impressive. We know that they lack cavalry, but that Crawlers do serve them, so that could explain it. Chaos must have initiated a small-scale attack to divert Rovalian forces.” Parean spoke as she contemplated and visualised their military movements with the map of Rovaltinny she had ingrained into her brain from the sheer amount of studying she had done on it.

“Did someone just say cavalry?” Galderian intruded gleefully. “We're fighting a worthy opponent without our own cavalry - this is disgraceful!” He shook his head as both Parean and Nircurus grinned at him.

Satisfied with Galderian's short interruption, Nircurus continued serenely “Anyway, I plan to do a small sweep of the gatehouse to descry any traps that could ensnare us and search for a few survivors. Then, our squadrons should return and inform Pepin to search the entire city to gather what has happened.”

“Who cares about strategy and survivors? We might as well kill everyone for the sake of it.” A bored Hastini blurted out. “If I don't get to kill someone in the next few hours, I might as well start killing a few Knights.” she glared at them.

“You are not required to emphasise your homicidal nature. We already know.” Parean returned without facing in her direction at all. “Without a good strategy, you would be killed without being able to kill an opponent. Therefore, I believe you should leave the planning to us, and we shall delegate the killing to you. Now, we need to search for any survivors” She reprimanded her.

“Fine” Hastini groaned and stormed off to her own squadron. “Don’t expect me to bring them back alive!” she yelled.

“Galderian, you know what to do.” Nircurus cued his lieutenant.

“Yes Nircurus, time to take to supervise Hastini with my half.” The lieutenant replied, sounding slightly depressed.

***

The hallways of the castle were completely deserted. Splatters of blood and corrosive stains plastered the walls as Parean trod carefully, avoiding the putrid material. Lobaten, Uldarlas and several of her other soldiers followed.

“This place reeks of the dead.” One of them complained, ill at ease due to the multitude of lonesome body parts.

“Oh be quiet Wurlam, you’ve been fighting in war for over four years! How have you not adjusted to the scent of dead bodies?” Another soldier hissed at his complaint with a hint of sarcasm, appearing rather amused as she spoke the words. The knight named Wurlam continued to wrinkle his nose in disgust and induced his own coughing to expel the foul air of decay in his lungs.

“Sorry, Orinfori, you’re requesting me to be quiet? And how do you adjust to the scent of death?” He shot back in response quietly.

Orinfori leered at him “Yes, it appears I am - don't pretend that you don't continuously complain about everything. Now, if you continue to talk, you’ll probably trigger a few traps that may have been set for us. You're almost as bad as Uldarlas in that regard. Besides, do you even remember the Lostathon Campaign? Decimating those weak militia soldiers was rather fun, don't you think?”

“I apologise, but both of you do need to be more vigilant about your surroundings. In addition, Orinfori, we killed more than a tenth of the enemy force during that battle, which is what decimating actually means.” Parean caught up with them. Both of them stopped in their tracks, gawping at the pool of liquefied flesh - filling a shallow cavity on the castle ground - they had simultaneously trudged into. As they were about to exclaim in disgust, Parean made a motion for them to be silent, which they agreed to and immediately followed.

From beyond the corridor came the scramble of food crates being knocked over. All 10 members of the quarter-squadron froze to locate the source, which was quite possibly a fatally uncoordinated Chaos scout. With a few silent hand signals, Lobaten and Orinfori crept forward, their vision circumspect. Another crate tipped over and dropped to the floor, revealing the location to be the storage room that detached from the hallway only several paces away.

Whatever entity was hiding in the room, it had certainly heard their approach. Parean felt a slight tinge of frustration as she had allowed for the unintentional disposal of their advantage of surprise. “Then again, indoor areas make it more difficult to maintain the element of surprise for an attacker.” She concluded.

The Great Knights unsheathed their weapons. “I suppose it could also be a Rovalian, but I am not suffering a single casualties because of a presumption that this is a friendly being.” Parean's internal monologue of logic continued as she ordered for three other Knights to move to Lobaten and Orinfori’s position, who weaved their silent footsteps between the limbs and organs that littered the stone floor.

Taking a deep but inaudible breath, Parean made a signal for Uldarlas and Wurlam to probe the room. They did so, shields raised to protect their entire bodies as they crouched down to enter the room. Parean peered around the corner to investigate the room herself once her soldiers gave the all-clear gesture. Arrayed around the room were stacks of wooden boxes laden with an assortment of food supplies, most of which had likely begun to rot due to the recently rainfall and the subsequent dampness in the air, as well as the fact that the castle had likely fallen to Chaos only a few days prior.

The only irregularity was directly in the centre, where numerous crates were scattered across the ground, which had clearly been recently disturbed. As Parean advanced into the room, Uldarlas raised her hand up, pointing at her discovery - a loose feather. “A Wingidon?” Parean began reconstructing how one would attempt to conceal itself. After a few seconds of visualising, she announced her presence softly: “Hello there? Can you hear me? This is Captain Parean Jagmoris of the Great Knights’ Eclipse Expedition, which has been sent to aid the Rovalians against a threat which your people informed us of less than a month ago.”

Hesitantly, the response - an agitated female voice - came “Are you sure?”

Trying to think of the most appropriate reply to such an illogical question (An intelligent Chaos soldier could simply lie and coax them into revealing their position before killing them) Parean answered “Yes, we are part of a vanguard that has just arrived at Roval. Unfortunately, it seems that our attempts were in vain, due to the complete destruction of almost all Rovalians in the region we have traversed. Therefore, we presume that our current mission is now to rescue as many Rovalian survivors as possible and rescue them while we investigate this ‘Chaos’ threat.”

“The Great Knights… I agree, you’ve come much too late to save all of us. I only survived by hiding in an unused waste shaft that led into the caves below. Only one of my friends is with me down in that cave at the moment. The rest are dead.” The Rovalian slowly shuffled out of the crates as she spoke shakily. By any means, her wings appeared completely battered from numerous journeys through a single passage unintended for the movement of people.

Yet again, not the most logical Rovalian” Parean deduced in her mind “Revealing information about her own allies without having analysed all of us yet; then again, I suppose she may have observed us before her question.”

Uldarlas piped up first in greeting to the Rovalian “Hello, I’m Uldarlas, Captain Parean's lieutenant” Both Parean and Wurlam visibly glared at her as she uttered the word ‘lieutenant’ “What's your name?” she continued, grinning as she saw their expressions from the corner of her eye.

The Rovalian stood upright, glancing at each of the Knights, and raising her hand tentatively in a sort of greeting. “My name is Janiwira Beti. So then, you were supposed to arrive multiple days ago.” She commented with a mixture of anger and fear at the 5 Knights standing alongside her with their weapons drawn.

Maintaining her somewhat friendly persona, Parean explained “The expedition was delayed by multiple lords and military officials, who kept on squabbling with each other over the elements they should send and their equipment. Eventually, our size was reduced to that of 3,100, using largely inexperienced units…”

“Only three thousand! Did the message have any sense of urgency!” Janiwira yelled in frustration. “Half of the army was cut off in a desolate border region to die while Chaos devastated the capital! We had 13,000 soldiers defending the capital in the end, and Chaos just rolled over them, slaughtering my people. They even captured the Augur Tower and massacred the current royal family and all the survivors have been taken away! What are three thousand procrastinating upper-class Knights going to do?”

“Firstly, we are neither procrastinating, nor entirely upper-class, and our soldiers are reasonably effective,  regardless of their lack if experience. Secondly, could you please tell us when all these events occurred, and how you managed to gather this information?” Parean inquired in her usual tranquil demeanour.

Only regarding Parean's second sentence, Janiwira recounted with slightly more confidence “I knew we were doomed as soon as the Chaos Queen, who they call Medusa, came up to the front lines and obliterated half of our formation. Some putrid walking bodies, were continually killing our soldiers in the air by throwing their own body parts. I knew I had to fly away. So I retreated to this castle. Their skeleton mages were somehow causing random soldiers to fly off directly into the enemy to be completely obliterated, and they took one of my friends. Another dropped to the ground and I attempted to hide her while she was unconscious, but when I came back a day later, she had disappeared. I saw them marching into our city, and I saw the tower collapse before they surrounded the walls with their gut-throwing zombies. There was no chance of escape, and they killed the rest of my family by breaking through another gate before I could reach them, so I decided to retreat here and hide.”

“Then, did these events occur two days ago?” Parean requested a more concise answer to her question, while she stored the name "Medusa" in her mind.

“Yes, they did. You were two days late, and now everyone, but one other Wingidon, is dead.” Janiwira was definite in her statement.

Perhaps in an attempt to encourage Janiwira, Parean informed her “There is another Rovalian by the name of Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti, who some of my comrades found being escorted through the forest by a single skeleton mage. However, we have reason to believe that he is in an unstable mental state currently, especially due to his claims to be king.”

“Hang on, did you mention Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti? He’s a 40 year old madman that's continually protested that he is the rightful king!” Janiwira exclaimed, surprised by Parean's minor revelation.

“Really? Intriguing…” Parean registered the information in her brain. “Anyway, would you like to lead us to your companion?” She continued amiably.

Janiwira grunted “Well, I suppose you are here to ‘rescue’ us” and began walking towards the hallway with a slight limp.

Once Janiwira was out of earshot guiding Orinfori and Lobaten to the shaft, Uldarlas whispered to Parean “That's at least three Wingidons still alive. That is progress!”

“Yes” She responded “Hopefully it is…”

Chapter Seven - The Orphanage Edit

As the already-shrouded sun sank further into darkness, Pepin stood outside his tent once more, examining his father's throwing axe. The Franciscus Crest was carved into the handle, while the ornate decoration continued upwards with multiple interweaving lines and shapes, which were still pronounced, even in the relatively dim light. As he traced the patterns with his finger, Pepin contemplated the reports that Parean and Nircurus had theorised. They had brought back seven Rovalian survivors, both a shockingly low number, and yet reassuring that there were more Rovalians alive than the lunatic Ashangul, the self-proclaimed king, they already had in custody. Pepin was particularly amused at Galderian’s complaint of having to supervise Hastini to ensure that she did not torture the single survivor they found to death.

”Sir, Lieutenant General Tangeldis requests your presence in the command tent. She is currently greeting a new Juggernaut that has been assigned to us...” Tillecthel informed Pepin to break the latter out of his trance-like state.

”A new Juggernaut? The council is replacing Rivinle?“ Pepin intrigued, suddenly ill at ease as Tillecthel spoke.

Gulping, Tillecthel continued hesitantly: “Or to be more precise, multiple Juggernauts led by one general in particular, who you may already know...”

Pepin’s face had begun to drain of colour as he registered who Tillecthel was referring to.

***

The intimidatingly large unhelmeted figure was already looming over Tangeldis, who stood at a head shorter than the Juggernaut. Flanking him were presumably his subordinates, all of whom were clad in chain mail overlapped by layers of steel plating, culminating in an oppressive weight - one that they carried with ease. As was customary, none of them were wearing their characteristic spiked armour in the tent; there was not yet any need to tear through lines of unarmoured infantry.

Rethdurk and Tillecthel marched into the tent, followed by Pepin, who was straining his head upwards to deliberately inflate his apparent size and give him a slight sense of confidence in encountering an old friend. A sense of dread crept up his spine as he identified each of them, in particular, their leader. Rapidly scanning all 13 of the Juggernauts, he could simply detect a faint dark aura emanating from every one of them. They were the paragons of loyalty to the Great Council, leaders who were intended to represent the defenders of light, and yet, there was a hint of another entity lurking beneath their metallic shells.

Katos whispered in Rethdurk's mind "They truly are rather substantial beings; maybe I should have possessed them instead." When Rethdurk did not respond, even mentally, Katos instead switched to relaying information rather than light-hearted mockery: "All of them have smirks behind their helmets, but something is shrouded within them. Something which I doubt that my powers will be able to match, let alone bypass them without detection." Concerned by Katos' worrying hypothesis, Rethdurk diverted his attention to Pepin.

Mustering as much courage as was possible, Pepin addressed them "Greetings Kirev. How are you?" His tone was unintentionally rather cold.

The lead Juggernaut snorted as he glared down at the short general in front of him. "General Franciscus, you are still remarkably diminutive."

Pepin would have smiled at this possible attempt at humour, but he knew all too well that Kirev was no longer in any position to joke with him, and that the statement was more of an intimidating insult. With his best efforts Pepin ignored him, pressing on with his point. "Why are you and 12 other Juggernauts here? Has the Council suddenly decided that we need a few giant hulks of walking metal to help us in an expedition that was ridiculously underfinanced?"

Unsuprised by Pepin's harsh attitude, Kirev replied "No, as a matter of fact, I personally requested to join your expedition." He sniggered silently as Pepin's face contorted into a mixture of rage and confusion.

"What? You decided to join us?" Pepin raised his voice, utterly confused at Kirev’s answer and throwing away any pretence of confidence.

"Yes, it seems that Juggernauts take priority over petty, devolved scum like yourself, so I personally requested the Council to join you, or should I say, take over your position of command." Pepin's jaw dropped as he comprehended the now-chuckling Kirev. "Therefore, General Franciscus, you are to be demoted to the rank of Captain, and the Council has officially requested that I, General Kirev Firiskiy, will take charge of the Eclipse Expedition." Kirev continued, clearly satisfied from instantly demoting Pepin to a diminutive rank.

“You are removing me from my command post? What is your reason? You can not simply… evict me simply because the Council love you!” The infuriated Pepin turned red with rage as he began ranting at the Juggernaut, confusion underlying his voice.

Kirev prepared to abase Pepin “You just answered your own question captain. Now leave…”

"How can you do this? This is outrageous! This is unfair! How can you simply take a way a hard-earned position for no reason other than corruption..." Pepin trailed off bloviating as he realised the futility of his words. Kirev no longer cared for anything that Pepin would argue - not any longer.

"Take a seat Franciscus." Kirev ordered sternly, relishing his new position. Grudgingly, Pepin moved backwards to sit on a stool, his eyes fixated on Kirev.

"Were you not intended to simply replace Captain Rivinle?" Tangeldis piped up, possibly disappointed that she was not the selected replacement for her former general.

Amused by Tangeldis' implicit opportunism, Kirev returned tersely "No. I am your general now." Then, sensing further discontent in her eyes, he stated "In fact, your post as lieutenant general will be reduced to that of a commander. Uialok will be replacing you instead." He nodded in the direction of the female Juggernaut adjacent to him, who also had her helmet off, and was sneering at Tangeldis with contempt.

Unwilling to incur the wrath of a Juggernaut, Tangeldis remained silent and saluted, but she could feel her own blood boiling within. No one could simply demote her for no reason.

Concerned by the sudden shift in leading positions, Rethdurk and Tillecthel glanced at each other with anxious expressions, while Katos’ exposure of more information on those Juggernauts was simply aggravating Rethdurk further.

***

"You're telling me that the entire capital has been butchered by the Chaos army? How is this expedition going to defeat an opponent that just crushed the entire Rovalian military?” Vince was visibly concerned about their precarious position.

“I have conferred with General Pepin and he has decided that our new objective is to recover as many survivors as possible and investigate this Chaos presence, but only to a small extent, since engaging them in open combat would practically be suicide.” Parean explained her solution.

Nircurus entered their discussion, contributing his pragmatic view “We must ensure that we suffer minimal casualties if we are to have any sense of success, since our initial objective is now unobtainable. If any Rovalian enclaves remain in the West, this small expedition simply lacks the resources to attempt to liberate them. If Chaos maintains its current rate of conquest, all of Rovaltinny will be in their grasp within approximately two weeks. We need to sweep through all of Rovaltinny and simply hope that they do not return to an area they have already razed and plundered of resources.”

Demoralised by the stream of information, Vince remained silent and nodded solemnly. “I guess we failed then.” Without another word, he waved a brief farewell to Parean and Nircurus, before plodding in a crestfallen fashion.

“Almost all of them are dead?” The now-healed Samson enjoined all the fragments of information he had heard as he ambled up to Vince.

“Yes, only a few Rovalians remained. This must have been an act of genocide or anything else that meant their extermination.” The latter divulged slowly, curling his lips inwards after he had done so in a form of a grimace.

“Ah, I see. Hopefully, we can find a few more survivors; perhaps we may save enough to reseed the Rovalian race?” Samson attempted to console both himself and Vince, but he knew that the likelihood of that was minimal.

Resuming his position of command, Vince initiated the orders to march his squadron out to Roval. Edlothang and Delphius emerged from their respective tents and rallied the other soldiers who responded to Vince’s signalling. “Time to rescue a dying race…

***

Traversing the same war-torn patch of bloodied road, the squadrons of Vince, Quargerin, Nircurus and Parean trudged through the mud, reflecting on the eerie lack of complete bodies that should have been a common feature on a battlefield, especially one of this size. They were led by Janiwira, who was gliding slowly above in the air, smirking at the soldiers below.

"A large battlefield with no corpses - this is just madness!" Delphius blurted out, compressing a small lump of flesh with his boots, which immediately oozed out a foul smelling liquid which hurried his departure.

"Maybe they decided to bury all the corpses alike?" Edlothang provided a possible theory with her usual level of optimism. "That would be a great display of respect and honour."

"Edlothang, from our recent observations, Chaos appears to be anything but respectful to the Rovalians and honourable in their demeanour. So far, we have seen at least two major settlements exterminated by Chaos and the population missing. At best, they have been deported to another location which we can easily liberate. At worst, all of them have been slaughtered, with a limited number utilised in slave labour in appalling conditions which will kill them rather quickly." Nircurus rapidly began debating Edlothang's theory, grimacing in a concerned manner as he did so.

"Blebfennas had a population of around 2,000 in 57 CSE, or 67 ASE, when the Great Knights and Havikians discovered them on one of their expeditions. Only yesterday, we were in Blebfennas, and there were no signs of Rovalian life there, not even freshly created graves. As a matter of fact, most of their newer graves were completely upturned and empty. Chaos must have a purpose for those Rovalians, whether dead or alive." Parean added, glancing anxiously at the gliding Janiwira, who was completely ignoring their conversation, instead focusing entirely on the path ahead.

"Well, I still have hope that they are reasonable." Edlothang replied in the same nonchalant, friendly tone, as though her stance had not changed at all. "Optimism I suppose" Parean reckoned internally.

The column advanced through the bloodied Rovalian gatehouse, entering the wreckage of the once-capital of the Kingdom of Rovaltinny. Husks of buildings towered over the main roads forlornly, overseeing the accumulations of partial corpses drenched in blood that were littered everywhere. Observing them, Vince noted the bite marks on some of the bodily remnants. “Crawlers” He muttered to himself with disgust. This was no more than an act of pure carnage.

“Soldiers, spread out in groups of 10. We need to discover as many Rovalians as possible!” Parean announced to her fellow Great Knights. “Each of your group leaders should have a rough map of the city provided by Janiwira.” She pointed out the flying Rovalian above her, who was simply staring mournfully in the other direction at the results of the battle that had raged on in her home city, a single tear rolling down her cheek. Unwilling to concentrate on her tearful guide, Parean redirected their attention once again “Make sure that you scour as many potential hiding places as possible, since any survivors should have hidden from their Chaos exterminators, and ensure that you appear as friendly as possible to reduce their agitation when they are discovered.”

On Parean’s command, the four squadrons diverged into their 16 separate groups, each moving to scan their designated area of the city. With any luck, they would not encounter any Chaos soldiers that would prove problematic, and at least find a handful of other Wingidons who had not perished in the slaughter that had occurred only a few days ago.

***

Within a few minutes, Vince and his soldiers had navigated their way through the labyrinth of ruinous streets, with the few derelict houses vaguely reminiscent of gravestones protruding from the rubble. The now-typical decoration of loose flesh and bone paved this section of the city, which had most likely suffered the worst of the bloodbath, caught between the two entry points of the harrowing Chaos forces in a pincer movement.

“That house is completely empty.” Delphius commented to his captain as they continued scanning for any signs of life in the deathly silence of Roval. Vince sighed dejectedly. If the remainder of the Rovalian race was to be found amongst the debris, it was unlikely that they could ever recover.

“Well, continue checking on that side of the ride.” Vince spoke in reply following his brief pondering, before turning towards the next building: an orphanage.

As Delphius lumbered away with his designated half of the group, Vince entered the ravaged orphanage, scrunching up his face in revulsion at the nauseating stench of decay, which was much more pronounced indoors due to the plentiful number of miniature rotting limbs, feathers and guts. "Dead orphans?" Vince questioned himself sickeningly as he came to the realisation that this was most likely the residue of butchered, parentless Rovalian children.

Unwilling to begin excavating the dead body parts, Vince simply called out "This is Captain Vince Sihanouk of the Great Knights! Is there any one here?", not expecting any answer at all. Following a fleeting silence, Vince turned to regain some fresh air, when he could distinguish a slight sobbing noise.

Confused, he signalled to the rest of his soldiers to be silent, and concentrated on the sound. It was coming from below, muffled by multiple layers of flooring and walls. "Hello?" Vince called out again, gripped by anxiety.

The response came as the sobbing paused temporarily - an audible, high-pitched echo of Vince's "hello" that almost definitely an orphan. "Don't worry, we..." Vince was cut short as he heard the shuffling of multiple objects beneath the floor in a sort of scramble. Within seconds, a trapdoor emerged from beneath his feet, causing him to stumble back a few paces, ready to draw his weapon.

Out popped a dolorous, young Rovalian girl, whose eyes were completely red from crying. She paused as she jerkily inspected all of her apparent saviours, greeting them with a nervous "Hello?"

Recognising the awkwardness of his situation, Vince crouched down slightly to the girl's height, making a salute-like wave. "Hello there... What's your name?" He inquired, upon seeing that she appeared completely unharmed physically, and stretched out his hand.

The orphan responded hesitantly "I'm Amharia, Amharia Nigisti." She still withheld her handshake.

Nigisti? The surname prompted another thought in Vince’s mind - it was a component of that of their insane, and presumably pretender, king Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti.

"Can you tell me what happened here?" Vince queried out loud,

Seemingly in anguish, Amharia paused, gulping as she spoke up again. "What happened?" She stopped again, replaying the torturous events she had witnessed, events which had surely seared themselves into her memory. "Everyone else here was killed. Chaos... they tortured them, butchered them, changed them..." Her voice trailed off, quivering with horror.

"Changed them?" Vince intrigued, surprised by this somewhat ambiguous verb.

After another moment of silence, Amharia lurched forward and embraced Vince with the tightness of a vice, stunning the latter completely. "I saw my friends get transformed into these bat things. I could see all of it from a slit we made a few years ago to inspect the main room from the cellar. Some skeleton mages came in and... and said something about using 'younger specimens' when they decided to start chaining up all the prisoners and mutating them one by one. They killed everyone who didn't comply - I saw all of it." She broke down into a stream of tears once again, lamenting for the transformation of her friends.

But for Vince, this revelation was, to say the least, shocking - Mutating? He repeated in his brain, picturing the nefarious process in his mind. There was clearly a far more sinister purpose for Chaos' campaign into Rovaltinny. Not all the Rovalians had been exterminated, but many had received a far worse fate.

Chapter Eight - Charge! Edit

“An orphan? What luck - we’ve barely found any competent Wingidons fit enough to fight alongside us.” Delphius complained sarcastically to Vince about their recovery of Amharia, who, rather than utilising her magnificently large expansive wings, was plodding at Vince's side, head bowed down and barely noticeable in the darkness of the night.

They were marching back to the encampment with the recombined squadrons, lamps in hand. Their hour-long search had uncovered twelve other Wingidons, but the vast majority were simply unwilling to fight for the Great Knights and were requesting that they be evacuated immediately. There were obviously some exceptions to this - at least two of them had families in the West of Rovaltinny, and were pleading for their liberation, while another was eager to avenge his fallen kinsmen.

“Honestly though, this expedition has been enough of a failure already. I propose that we ignore these fools who think that we can actually defeat Chaos and leave with at least the pretence of having saved some people.” Samson intercepted the pair. Both Vince and Delphius shrugged in agreement - there was no hope of achieving anything substantial on this expedition, and in their minds, they expected that Pepin would give the command to go home, bringing the dejected remains of their allied nation.

“If we try to fight Chaos, I am almost certain that our expedition of 3,100 mostly inexperienced Great Knights will be obliterated. The possibility of liberating more Rovalians without sufficient intelligence is highly unlikely, and even so, we would only be able to rescue a few more until Chaos deemed us a sufficiently large threat to similarly destroy us piecemeal.” The three soldiers could overhear Nircurus’ explanation to the few belligerent Wingidons in his typically cool demeanour.

“The Great Knights were supposed to save us, and now they are giving up after saving ten Wingidons!” One exclaimed in reply, angered.

“We have saved nineteen Rovalian lives, not ten.” Parean rebuked him sharply, correcting his under exaggerated figure.

“I don't care if you’ve rescued another nine more Wingidons - I have a wife and children to the west of these mountains, and I intend to save them from this putrid Chaos Empire!” The roguish Rovalian emphasised.

Irritated by his persistence, Parean blurted out "I apologise... whatever your name is... we simply do not have the resources to fight Chaos. If you wish to debate this, then I suggest taking this up with the Great Council on your arrival in Invinojug, although whether they will listen is unlikely."

"My name is Captain Tebekel Yebetes of the Second Ele'Jantu Guard, and I will not be dismissed like a fool - I demand that you aid in the liberation of my family and the Wingidon cause as a whole!" He cried in response.

Bluntly, both Great Knight captains refused his irritating demands in tandem: "We will not participate in some suicidal rescue operation."

"I advise that you plead your case to our General and he may petition to the Council, but as Parean has already informed you, they will no not be likely to listen to you." Nircurus added.

Angrily, Tebekel stomped ahead, flapped his wings in the beginnings of a sprint and ascended into the air, seeing that none of the Great Knights could tolerate his presence for any longer, even as the camp was coming into sight.

"That Rovalian does want us all to get killed - how nice of him to just ignore all of our information and insist on being completely suicidal." Samson commented once he deemed that Tebekel was too far away to overhear them.

"We don't get to kill anything? That's a shame." Delphius sighed ironically, raising smiles from Vince and Samson. "Well, at least we are going home now."

"Agreed..." Vince stopped as he caught sight of two figures of average stature lurking at the edge of the camp, apparently conversing. Intrigued, Vince squinted further at the two, identifying them as Rethdurk and Tillecthel. "What are they doing there?" He whispered over to Samson and Delphius.

"They're talking, what else does it look like?" Delphius stated, not perceiving the different tone in Vince’s voice.

The four squadrons rapidly approached the camp. It was devoid from any sort of activity at its edges, unusual for the time of day when Knights eager to have their last meal of the day were loitering around, hoping to skip the long queues that would form and stretch out from the mess tents. Others would usually be marching around, completing their last administrative tasks before dinner, especially a captain like Vectiam.

"Rethdurk, Tillecthel, where is everyone?" Vince yelled, still some distance away from the two soldiers in question. They turned to notice him and rushed towards him briskly.

"You're not going to like this, and frankly, I don't think anyone else here does." A distressed Rethdurk shook his head as he reached Vince, his teeth gritted.

"What's happened?" Samson inquired, slightly more anxious at Rethdurk's foreboding.

Tillecthel broke the news: "Pepin is no longer general; he has been replaced by the Juggernaut Kirev Firiskiy."

Vince swore.

***

"General Kirev? That little... please just kill me now. Except that won't be needed, because with a Juggernaut in charge of a weak expedition, all of us are going to die anyway." Quargerin expressed bitterly as Tillecthel relayed the news.

"Yet another typical example of a Juggernaut, although maybe with less of an aptitude for self-worship." Nircurus mused.

As the soldiers continued filtering through the camp, they noticed a large gathering of almost the entirety of the expedition, all of whom were formed up in the central parade square in neat formations. They surrounded the comparatively towering metallic hulks at the centre which were barking orders at the terrified Knights. “Juggernauts.” Vince snarled mentally at the brainwashed super soldiers while his companions assembled at the edge of the square.

“... Therefore your former general Franciscus and Lieutenant General Nessconui will be demoted to the ranks of captain and commander respectively.” The largest of the Juggernauts bellowed, allowing a few seconds of shocked murmuring from the anxious troops, before reclaiming their attention: “Captains Sihanouk, Jagmoris, Felkus, Norsiori! Get here at once!”

Jolting slightly at the Juggernaut’s sudden announcement, Vince followed Parean as the four of them fell out of their formations with a half turn and marched steadily towards the centre of the parade, silently bracing themselves for what would come.

As inconspicuously as possible, Vince glanced fleetingly at the head Juggernaut, now equipped with a number of spikes attached to his shoulder plates, gauntlets, sabatons and arm plates. The stains of blood and other gory remains were still visible on these instruments of death that had been used in a charge, prompting some discomfort and a shudder of fear as he imagined how the spikes would have ripped through a multitude of unfortunate souls and spilled vast volumes of blood onto the battlefield. Such was the terror of fighting a Juggernaut.

“Well, the best of the best…” The Juggernaut leered at the captains “I can see why General Franciscus overworked all of you - you seem to command some of the few competent squadrons on this expedition.” With a pause to analyse the four Knights, he spoke up again “Well, as you may have heard, I, Kirev Firiskiy, am now your general, and Pepin Franciscus will be demoted to the rank of Captain. I trust that you will continue to serve the Great Knights and the Council under my command as well as you have followed his.” He smirked.

Daunted by the prospect of obeying a Juggernaut, all four of them remained silent. “Is that a yes, or do you want to be executed?” Kirev yelled loudly.

“Yes sir!” Their uniform response rang out clearly through the camp, afraid of being unheard.

Satisfied, Kirev turned and muttered his order “Good, now prepare for battle: we march out in an hour”, strutting away from the parade square.

The other Juggernauts began barking their own command orders to dismiss the parade. “All Rovalians who were retrieved by the recent exploration party, report to General Kirev’s tent immediately.”

***

“An hour!” Quargerin hissed under her breath in dismay as they all returned to their tents “What did I expect - he’s an utter…” She cursed Kirev once again.

“Precisely. It's past dusk now, which means that we have to march in complete darkness to our former campsite.” Nircurus stated, deeply unhappy with their situation.

“What's worse is that Nircurus isn't completely correct.”

All of the other captains jerked their heads round to see Vectiam, who was similarly shaking her head in disarray. “We are not returning to our previous campsite. Instead, Kirev has announced we have been given orders by the council to reoccupy all of Rovaltinny, and starting by assaulting the Chaos base at the Western District of Roval.”

More curses were exchanged between the group.

“A Chaos base in the West of Roval? How does he know?” Parean intrigued, exasperated by Vectiam's information.

“He told us that a preliminary scout groups was sent up, consisting of the few reinforcements that were allocated to us. The majority of the forces is heading out, but squadrons such as mine will remain here to guard the camp from attack and preserve all our supplies for the next big push into Rovalian territory.” She responded.

It was happening - they were going to be fighting a superior force with their puny expedition. “We are all doomed…” Samson spoke.

***

"Hurry up W Squadron! You are falling behind!" Uialok hissed at the bumbling squadron behind Vince’s unit, highlighting the spacious gap between the two groups, which was consequently holding up the rest of the column. The moon, beginning its waning process, shed a few beams of dim light on the column, barely illuminating any dead Rovalians that plastered the road.

“Shut up! Do you not understand the point of this mission?” Uialok violently gripped the shoulder of one of the Knights who was intent on constantly whispering to his friend. “With your rate of chatter, if I catch you one more time, I will physically rip your throat out!” In awe at the ignorance of one of his fellow Great Knights, most likely a freshly-trained soldier, Vince rapidly cast his eyes on the Knight, reflecting on Uialok’s rhetorical question.

The intent of the mission was to ambush the Chaos forces at night, catching them completely off guard with a huge charge from multiple angles to obliterate the enemy, as Kirev claimed. Hence, a struct policy of silence was enforced as they marched. Apparently, this was only the first stage of his grand plan of reconquest. The preliminary briefing that Kirev had given before they began their long night march seemed to suggest that he had taken this action to reclaim the homeland of the Rovalians, something staunchly supported by Tebekel, the Wingidon Captain.

Unconvinced by their explanation, Vince grinned ironically “Yeah, sure...

To most of the Knights however, the more feasible explanation, one which would indefinitely fit Kirev’s zealous and brutal attitude, was that this was no more than a ploy to simply get them all killed, with the exception of the Juggernauts themselves and any other loyalist elements among them. It was plain that the expedition was in no way prepared for a sustained campaign of any sort, and that the majority of its previous leaders were not particularly favoured by the Council, with the most obvious example being Pepin, a potentially dangerous reformer.

With regards to soldiers such as Vince and Samson, they also suspected that they were to be the victims of a purge of some sort. In spite of all their loyal and successful service to the Great Knight cause, the Council was far more inclined to favouritism than meritocracy, and in turn, these Knights were all too eager to express their disdain for the ruling Council. The champion of the latter however, was not actually on the expedition: General Halm Hallstav, commander of the 4th Great Army, the Majestic Order, an elite army composing troops specialising in campaigns against the Dirvishes. Vince, Samson, Delphius and Edlothang were all vital components in the army, until the Council saw fit to fracture it after the Dirvish threat had virtually disappeared. At that point, they had served their purpose and were a threat to the Council's authority, and the elders saw to fit to cleave off huge portions of the army and assign then to separate expeditions.

Internally, Vince commented “Just like us…

The irritating giggle of the Knight that Uialok had previously warned cropped up again, only to be silenced permanently with a single, swift motion. Half of Vince's squadron stared back to view Uialok, with an infernal smirk of satisfaction, gripping a bloody dripping mass of flesh in one armoured hand, and a limp Great Knight in the other, with his eyes bulging out in shock. A small squelching noise and a quiet thump confirmed that Uialok had simply tossed her victim aside. Not daring to even open his lips, Vince focused his concentration on marching again, only briefly catching the eye of Edlothang, who was seemingly blissfully unaware of the murder that had befallen another knight only a few metres away, given her near-permanent smile’s presence.

The column ground to a halt at the signal of the Juggernauts. The preordained plan was put into action.

***

The squadrons were dispersed in groups surrounding the camp, sheltering behind ridges in the dense coniferous forests to conceal themselves from any vigilant Chaos scouts that could see through the near-impervious darkness.

“How are we planning to ambush this position?” Galderian inquired.

Suddenly anxious, Nircurus, Yaleris and Parean all twisted their heads round tentatively to address Galderian. His question was obviously rhetorical, and the frown etched onto his face, visible even with the absence of light, suggested that he was discontent with their situation.

Concerned, Nircurus spoke first “Galderian, whatever you are about to do, I implore you not to confront any of the Juggernauts. Instead, we can…”

“Nircurus, I appreciate your concern, but I am not committing myself to a purposeless charge when we have no information regarding the enemy's unit composition, morale and other additional defences constructed to counter such an attack. Do not bother trying to restrain me.” Galderian stormed off in the direction of Kirev, having entered one of his stages of ranting. Even Nircurus’ lingering question of “Hold on, are you sure about the course you are about to take against the new general?” was unanswered as Galderian continued on.

Shaking his head in despair, Nircurus turned to Parean “This is incredibly bad - Galderian completely lacks the ability to compromise with authority, and these Juggernauts are precisely the embodiment of such authority.”

“And I suppose there is nothing we can do about it.” Parean added, noting that Nircurus had not attempted to stop Galderian further.

In full agreement, Nircurus nodded: “As he made quite clear, he certainly does not want us to obstruct his self-endangering vendetta against foolish orders from those in high positions of command. I would personally join him, save for the fact that I can simply achieve a compromise with this plan with hopefully no repercussions later on, of either heavy casualties or charges of insubordination.”

“True” Parean shrugged, fully sympathising with her friend’s viewpoint “Although, are you sure it would be beneficial to leave him to his own, stubborn devices?”

“I at least know that it would be unwise to attempt to prevent him from confronting General Kirev, but such impulses will only be placing himself at risk.” Nircurus replied in a sombre mood, scaling up the comparative outcomes of such an occurrence in his brain.

Both of them peered over the edge of the ridge, examining the faint outlines of minor earthworks that were in place, before turning back to watch Galderian's confrontation of his general several metres behind. Critical of Galderian's uncompromising nature, Yaleris whispered rhetorically "Why does he always do this?"

They cringed in a semblance of fear as they witnessed Kirev knock Galderian down in an instant, incapacitating him furiously as he delivered his well-founded, but futile, argument. As quickly as he had unleashed his rage, Kirev returned to his surveying of the moonlit terrain before them. They all knew that a full-frontal assault was imminent.

"Well then, good luck everyone! Don't die!" Parean's grim expression was pronounced in her grin.

From hand signals of the Juggernauts, the Knights advanced over the ridge, preparing to sprint.

"CHARGE!"

***

War cries burst out from across the area, surging forward into the forest towards the camp. Vince leapt forward across the ridge, rallying his squadron behind him, and raising his shield up to defend against any incoming projectiles. Shouts of confusion and slow shuffling emitted from the Chaos base, whose garrison sounded surprised at the emergence of hundreds of Great Knights. However, within seconds Vince could make out a multitude of hunchback beings swarming onto the platform above the palisade with slave-like obedience to their Chaos masters. "They all seem...rather slow and heavily wounded, almost as if they were dead..." Vince came to a sudden revelation as they came closer, staring in horror as they began tearing at their own abdomen and ripping substantial chunks of flesh out and preparing to throw them in the direction of their attackers. The image that the Rovalians had previously described was certainly that of these shambling corpses. Nearby, he could also hear Samson's shock at the appearance of these nefarious reanimated bodies.

As they trampled across the vegetation to reach the earthworks, concentrated bombardments of rotten flesh began hailing on them, incapacitating several as they keeled over in pain as the poison oozing from these decaying masses seeped through to their armour and skin. Others began sinking suddenly into concealed pits into the ground, only this time, they were filled with wooden spikes, shredding the feet of several Knights who collapsed in. Yet, their screams were drowned out by the continual roars of other Knights.

Having suffered numerous casualties, the squadrons began scrabbling over the earthworks, while axe-throwers hurled franciscas at close range, obliterating the ranks of the dead. Firstly, Edlothang and Samson, both of whom were to Vince’s left, scaled the palisade and stabbed one of the walking corpses in the throat, before hacking its head off, allowing it to disintegrate into liquefied flesh and bone.

To his right, Samson launched himself onto the platform and swung his axe at another gut-thrower, lodging it deep into its organs. However, the being simply continued to tear their its own intestines out, completely ignoring the blade that was now present in its body. Confused, Samson ripped his axe back out and aimed for the same incision, spraying more blood and other bodily fluids everywhere as it impacted the barely functioning organs. With another powerful swing, the axe slammed into the corpse, destroying whatever dark force that was holding it together, and allowing it to crumple onto the floor. Samson stared curiously at the once-animated corpse that had taken at least three axe blows to kill again, placing his shield up to cover himself as he decided to crouch down and examine it.

"Samson, what are you doing?" Vince yelled at his lieutenant, intrigued by the former's absorbance in studying the rotting corpse, while he shoved his shield forward to knock one of the corpses over, a surprisingly difficult feat.

"What are these entities called?" Samson responded, looking up from his inspection to decapitate another.

"I have no idea, but all of them seem to be...well, dead!" An exasperated Vince exclaimed.

Bluntly as always, Delphius entered their conversation, which was already disjointed by the endless waves of shambling zombies "Just call them 'Deads' or something. We don't have to find a sophisticated name for them." As soon as he finished speaking, he charged forward once again, just in time to see the knight in front of him suffer a blow to the face from a detached organ, sending him retching in agony as the poison seeped into his skin.

Grimacing as he saw his comrade collapse in pain, Vince advanced steadily, glancing to his flanks to monitor his squadron. For a few seconds, he could detect a faint coldness drifting towards his line, inducing a slight shiver down his spine, until it disappeared completely in a single, swift motion. In complete synchronisation, one soldier began sprinting out of formation, swinging her weapons and shield at her side as she charged with without abandon directly onto the Chaos horde, being met instantly by a volley of Dead projectiles before Vince even had time to raise his voice. She collapsed to the earth, almost certainly dead, as her blood flowed out from her corpse.

"What the..." Vince exclaimed in his mind. He knew his soldiers well enough to know that all of them would never charge outright into the enemy without any weapons or shield prepared to strike. This was certainly not normal.

Once again, he could sense the peculiar frigid aura nearing him, before it completely evaporated. This time, it was Samson who pounded forward, suddenly exposed to the unrelenting hails of toxic flesh. His face was not in a usual confident expression, but rather, contorted with fear, almost confused. But whatever had gripped Samson was going to lead him to certain death.

Realising Samson's suddenly precarious position, Vince yelled once more "Charge!" and bolted to catch up with Samson, attempting to block several pieces of dislocated intestine, cursing as he did so. Delphius and Edlothang, recognising Vince's situation, charged up to aid their captain, cutting down several Deads that obstructed their path. Within seconds, the entire squadron had followed Samson in swarming into a single point in the Chaos line.

Having broken directly into the depths of the camp, Samson halted abruptly, coming to his senses. "What just happened? And why are we here?" He rifled through his immediate memories, having absolutely no recollection of the past few seconds. Perturbed, Samson retreated behind the safety of his shield, registering that the entire squadron had somehow burrowed through the sea of Deads to surround themselves completely and entrench themselves in a circular formation. Now, there were a few members of another variant of Dead approaching their position: more simplified zombies that simply staggered up to their position, without lobbing projectiles (these were presumably their cannon fodder form). Fleetingly, Samson glanced at Vince, before taking the initiative himself and launching a break out of the small encirclement that had formed.

“Samson, what was that charge? You didn't even use your shield!” Vince’s perplexed voice rang out, aiming to receive an explanation. Samson simply shook his head and continued hewing through the endless horde, splitting several Dead skulls in the process.

Undeterred, Vince probed further, attempting to slip past several of his own soldiers to interrogate his lieutenant. However, as he did so, his peripheral vision located another mysterious figure: a skeleton mage, gripping a similar staff made of bones - it was identical to the one that had been escorting Ashangul before being killed by Delphius. The mage was pummelling the ground with the staff, producing small tremors that released a shock wave and a pulse of energy. Intrigued, Vince remained fixated on the skeleton; he had never seen one in action before.

With an overextended lunge, the mage suddenly impacted its fist upon the ground in tandem with the staff, suddenly unleashing a column of skeletal fists that launched out of the earth, heading directly into the squadron. The yells and screams of his soldiers pierced his trance-like state, and with renewed vigour, he passed the order to Delphius, pointing clearly at the mage. Recognising the target, Delphius grinned gleefully. Bursting out in a hysteric cackle, he rapidly initiated his flanking manoeuvre, announcing his presence at the side of the unsuspecting mage with a quick strike to the spine. The brittle spinal column immediately snapped and sent the bone fragments cascading onto the ground.

With no further sporadic charges, Vince deemed they were safer in their current position and began closing his formation up, holding firm and allowing as many Deads to surround them as possible, coordinated with the reinforcements that he could barely spot.

Wakes of franciscas formed from ripping through the Dead lines emerged, cleaving several paths for Rethdurk's and Pepin’s squadrons to pour through. At the front of both was Uialok, who had initially taken her position behind the ridge at the beginning of the assault. Now, she barged her way forward, shoving members of Vince's squadron aside as she began flexing her joints and unsheathing her maces in preparation for something…

A ferocious roar broke out and Uialok charged headlong into the enemy, swinging her spiked clubs in controlled, but power-driven, blows that swept away a handful of Deads each time. Blazing a trail into the heart of the base for the already battered Great Knights, she yelled an incoherent command in the direction of her opponents, before turning to her subordinates and ordering them to follow up.

“Hang on Vince.” Samson caught Vince’s shoulder as he was on the verge of obeying the command. “How are we supposed to capture the command post of the base through a single gap? Uialok has not killed any of those haunting skeletal mages, which can cast spells that will devastate a concentrated body of troops, or pull them aside to destroy in detail. Finish them off first!”

Convinced by Samson's hastened assessment of their situation, Vince instead targeted the other missile units and spellcaster at the side of Uialok’s new passage, disregarding his superior and unleashing upon them another storm of axes and swords.

“Captains Sihanouk, Von Kark, Franciscus, that was an order! Push towards my location now and focus on your objective!” Uialok screeched from a distance, intimidating all three squadrons. Begrudgingly, Rethdurk advanced into the corridor, ensuring all of his Knights had their shields locked into a testudo formation to block as many projectiles as possible. Unmoving, Vince and Pepin continued to hound the encroaching Deads on either side of the artificial corridor in an attempt to prevent them from targeting Rethdurk.

In spite of their testudo formation, the Deads and skeletal mages were gradually whittling away at their numbers, pelting them with hails of poisoned guts, infernal fists and mystical ghosts. “Are we really doing this? This seems slightly suicidal, not to mention that our squadron is only halfway through this corridor and suffering heavier casualties than we have so far on the rest of the expedition.” Katos commented with concern. “I know, but as Lieutenant General Uialok requested, we need to focus on our objective. Can you cast some sort of defensive shield to negate the damage?” Rethdurk requested in turn.

Respectfully, Katos replied “As a matter of fact, I’m already summoning one to protect you, but I'll extend it. Just be prepared to explain how our casualty rate suddenly stops increasing.” Rethdurk felt a small disturbance ripple across his armour as the supposed arcane shield extended its reach. As he descried the expressions of his soldiers, they all appeared to realise that the putrid sprays of flesh lessened their impact on the shields, culminating in an overall decrease in tension. “Thanks Katos - now we continue on.

Imbued with an invisible aura of protection, that Rethdurk's squadron were woefully unaware of, the Great Knights ploughed through, adding to the corpses already piling up in Uialok’s wake. All three units began crushing the Dead hordes against the edges of their own buildings, breaking into compounds housing carts, half of which were packed to the brim with rotting corpses.

Vince and Samson in particular flung themselves into the centre of the action, cutting through the weaker mêlée Deads with relative ease. Rather than witnessing their corpses petrifying, leaving a bare skeleton which also collapsed immediately behind, they instead simply collapsed to the floor intact, with visible gashes in their necks or heads.

The distinctive Great Knight war cry from a separate direction revealed that another breakthrough had been achieved, triggering a mass retreat amongst the Chaos forces. Within significant pockets of slow-moving Deads and mages, the outer ring remained to be slaughtered as the others turned their backs to their allies and fled as quickly as their decaying legs would allow them.

A few minutes of intense carnage later, the path to the Chaos statue, a vital component of the base, lay undefended, with all the Undead troops that had bothered to protect it lying prone on the ground, now certainly dead. Converging on the central position, Vince's squadron approached the statue in time to see Rethdurk’s soldiers working to systematically destroy the statue. Given that none of them seemed out of breath from physical exercise, they had not been operating at the statue for long, perhaps for a matter of seconds. Nonetheless, chips of stone were already flying off the statue, while the tops of the statue, untouched by Rethdurk's ravaging, was still poorly carved, given that the disproportionately small skull that topped it was already misshapen and irregular; there had been a severe lack of craftsmanship inputted into its creation.

Before Vince was even able to reach his ally, the statue instantly gave way, toppling to the earth clumsily. Finally, victory had been achieved, but at what a cost? Vince, Samson and Delphius all stared at their surroundings, stunned into silence by the sheer quantity of bodies that had blanketed the blood-soaked ground. What was more shocking were the composition of the fatalities: there was obviously a higher number of fallen Deads, both mêlée and projectile; unusually, there were many plates of armour scattered on the ground, signifying heavy Great Knight casualties. A severe loss of manpower was considered to be approximately 200 soldiers, taking experience and equipment into account. Here, the tallies would reveal that over 500 Great Knights had perished in that short period, killed as a result of their suicidal charge into fortified enemy lines. As far as the knights could see, the frequency of the specks of shining metal was a worrying sight; the ground was inflected with them, revealing small pools of reflected moonlight where casualties were concentrated.

Before any of them had a chance to rest, Kirev’s booming voice projected over to the Knights “Excellent, this base has been captured. Now start foraging for supplies!” Exhausted, the squadrons slowly picked themselves up and began traversing the camp. Even in the numbing darkness of the early hours, their work was not done. More suicidal charges were to come.

Chapter Nine - Dark Skulls Edit

Vince remained slumped against the edge of the palisade, his head throbbing from a lack of sleep and his vision clouded. His squadron members were all stretched out in similar positions, attempting to get as much rest as possible before their next task.

“Why...can...I...not...sleep…?” Delphius groaned groggily, rolling his head to the other side in an attempt to create a more comfortable sleeping position.

“Don’t bother talking then; you probably have insomnia or…” Vince yawned heavily “...something else. At least Kirev let us rest.”

Samson commented with a heavy air of sarcasm in his croaking voice “Yes, rest next to a mud wall with virtually no protection from the elements. Such excellent accommodation - get your troops to sleep on the ground. Luckily, insects haven't infested every inch of our armour, so we are probably fine.”

“Very true” Vince responded before extending his jaw in yet another large yawn "Let's just hope he..." He paused as he heard a particularly loud curse word from behind the palisade. "Oh finally - the supply train has arrived." Vince sighed mentally “...doesn't force us to get up anytime soo-”

His speech came to an abrupt stop as his hazy vision detected multiple reflective hulks of black wading towards them. “S Squadron, your rest has elapsed. Move out immediately and assist B Squadron in their struggle to transport the supplies from our previous base to here” An unfamiliar voice snarled viciously. Judging by his authoritarian stature, undertone of arrogance and immense size, it was definitely a Juggernaut, but certainly not Kirev. As a matter of fact, this Juggernaut had a piercing, nasal voice, akin to that of an uptight aristocrat, a stark contrast to the low, growling rumble of Kirev.

“Who are you?” Delphius yawned, attempting to prop himself up from his inconvenient rest position.

The Juggernaut glared at him sharply. “Who am I? Do I need to wear a badge of identification saying ‘I am Ilfibrir Turang, your superior officer’? Is that not already blatantly obvious?”

"No, it isn't." Delphius retorted, still eyeing the egoistic Juggernaut with confusion. "Why would I know your name if we have not even met each other?"

"You complete and utter fool! At least acknowledge that I am your superior and do not pester me with your stupid questions! Now get up and follow your orders you peasant scumbag!" Ilfibrir screeched in return, causing Delphius to simply march off, frustrated by the Juggernaut's far-fetched criticisms.

"We'll get him one day Delphius, one day..." Samson whispered comfortingly to his friend, who was muttering curses under his breath as they stormed off in the distance.

"Ilfibrir Turang - I'll pummel that ruddy Juggernaut until his cranial fluid leaks out from his armour." Samson seethed in his mind. Ilfibrir was utterly unjustified on berating him; in his eyes, the Juggernaut was no more than a self-centred, orgulous being, much like Rivinle - only this time, Ilfibrir was one of those in command.

***

"Vectiam, what happened here?" Vince inquired, rubbing his eye as he did so in a futile attempt to maybe alleviate his tiredness, clearly represented by the shadow-like imprints under his eyes.

Impatiently, Vectiam groaned "It seems that one of the wheels fell into a pit trap, stumping this cart completely." She gesticulated at the spikes protruding from the thin layer of foilage planted to disguise, which were now interrupted by a mud-slathered wheel and several crates.

"That is...unfortunate to say the least. Well, time to get working then." Vince grumbled, reaching down to drag a wooden container from the pit in a slightly clumsy action.

"Captain Vectiam, do you need any help?" A dreary voice drifted from behind. Vince made a slight turn and caught Amharia, the Rovalian orphan, in his peripheral vision.

"Don't worry Amharia, everything is fine; we just need to get these supplies out of this pit." Vectiam answered with an encouraging air of certainty, to which Amharia nodded slightly and turned to sit down on a patch of grass, completely silent.

Observing this, Vince whispered to Vectiam "Have you been taking care of the orphan? And where are all the other Rovalians?"

"All of them were dispersed through the reinforcing column to different squadrons, although I'm not sure why. I've been trying to comfort her" Vectiam glanced at Amharia, before turning back "However, she has witnessed quite a traumatic event for an eleven year old, hence I tried not to broach on that subject again. Instead, I found out that she trained in archery since the age of 7, and that she's quite proficient in it, with her own custom bow and quiver. I found that it was best to try and focus on something she enjoyed as a pastime."

Immediately after salvaging a crate, Vectiam rummaged around in her own bag, funding and holding up Amharia's miniature hunting bow, a rather light weapon embellished with a single crest, a five-point star with a pair of Rovalian wings.

"Hmm, what does that symbol signify?" A genuinely intrigued Vince questioned, his eyes still attached to the bow as he dragged another box out of the pit.

Vectiam replied knowingly "I asked the same question, and apparently, it is the seal of House Tolip, the current royal family. Their system of selecting rulers is different to that of other typical kingdoms that we have encountered, such as the Fern or the Hailthangail."

"How so?" Vince probed further.

"Well, rather than hereditary succession, as with most other kingdoms, the successor to a king is chosen from one of the seven royal houses, all descendants of the semi-legendary first King Aksuntu, founder of the Kingdom. Aksuntu had nine daughters to succeed him and when his eldest daughter, who succeeded him during his waning years, became corrupted by power over time, both Aksuntu and the other eight daughters fought back in a huge rebellion, which ended in the deaths of both the eldest and the youngest daughter during the final Battle of Roval. It was eventually decided that hereditary rights would be abolished and would instead fluctuate between the descendants of the remaining seven so one of them could not become too powerful." Vectiam spouted out the Rovalian legend.

Vince returned with equal enthusiasm "Interesting, how do these elections work?"

"They don't." Came the terse answer, but not from Vectiam. "I really don't know why they decided to use that system, because having representatives from each house to elect a candidate other than their own is just stupid. We don't get to do anything at all! If House Tolip lost the Crown before I reached adulthood, I would be doomed." Rather, it was Amharia, still relatively quiet, but charged with vigour as she spoke.

Eyebrows conspicuously raised, Vince turned back towards the direction of Amharia, surprised by her sudden political statement. "How much were you involved in Rovalian politics?” he puzzled.

Suddenly apprehensive of what she had just spoken, Amharia paused, reflecting on her answer. Gulping, she finally spoke “My surname is Nigisti. That is the name given to all illegitimate children of the reigning monarch.”

She’s an illegitimate child of the king?” Vince inferred, taken aback by the suggestion.

Amharia confirmed Vince’s reflection, simply nodding "Illegitimate children are not supposed to be cared for. I may have lived in an orphanage, but that was compared to others. They usually end up dead on the streets as toddlers, since few monarchs want anything to do with them, and the Wingidon people see us a s abominations of royalty. I’m lucky that the king actually provided for me within the orphanage, including my education, otherwise I would just be another homeless child. But now, I truly an orphan.” She grit her teeth as she spoke and hung her head, staring at the ground in silence. Vince took this as a signal to end the conversation, and returned to his task, considering Amharia's background.

***

“That took longer than expected. What were you discussing with that Wingidon?” Delphius inquired.

Vince shook his head in response. “I’d rather not say, especially in earshot of them.” He made a slight nod towards the group of Rovalians standing several metres away. “If they found out Amharia's identity, they would be...less than happy.”

“What, is she a princess or something that they all hate?” Delphius remarked casually.

Vince’s head pulled itself up, his eyes suddenly boring through Delphius “Was that just a guess?” he interrogated suspiciously.

Caught unaware, Delphius frowned in confusion “What do you mean? Are you telling me she is a princess?” He exclaimed.

Vince hurriedly put his finger to his lips in a gesture to request Delphius to go silent, which he complied with, eyes enlarged. “Why was she in an orphanage then? Does that mean that Ashangul could be her father, even if he is mentally disabled and probably not king?” Delphius whispered, now intrigued by his random guess.

“I really don't want to get into that at the moment Delphius. Right now, I’d prefer to keep quiet; I know you can keep secrets, but I will not disclose this information for now.” Vince replied firmly.

Delphius sighed in disappointment “Ah, I guess you can't really disclose dodgy secrets anymore. I remember those days when we always gossiped to each other and made a collection of all of Lord Beriaur’s shortcomings and crimes with the punishments we would give them. Do you remember that three page list?”

“Yes, I remember that.” Vince grinned “Especially where the appropriate sentence for most of them was being tortured to death - aptly, you wrote all of those didn't you.”

“Certainly did, and I'm glad it still exists, just in one of those artefact chambers which no one ever goes in. Imagine if the Esoteric Exiles actually checked them regularly, and found that list lying in place of some sacred scroll which Samson took? That would be hilarious!” Delphius scoffed at their old adventures attempting to undermine their former master as much as possible, even if it allowed more painful memories of that time to flood his mind. He scrunched his eyes up before continuing to gauge Vince’s reaction.

“When you think you’re going to read Tarconencis Esotergnos’ ‘The Ego Triumphs’ (I still remember that last line “All things are nothing to me” thanks to Samson), and then unfold the scroll and see ‘Petty, tyrannical…’ and a whole bunch of swear words you somehow learnt by the age of 12.” Vince snorted hysterically, raising smiles from the both of them.

“Good times…” Delphius smiled, nodding at Vince with approval.

Vince beamed “Yeah...anyway, we should probably make it seem as though we are being productive before a certain Juggernaut decides to conscript us into some other manual labour task.”

“Agreed, let's find Samson or Edlothang, they should know what to do.” With that, the two of them began striding towards their new tent location, aiming to appear as inconspicuous as possible.

“...Sir, we have a missing Rovalian!” A distant soldier’s voice drifted through the air as he warned his superiors, presumably still at the parade square.

“They've lost someone? Hmm, that's...worrying.” Vince commented as he caught the faraway announcement.

“Who have they lost? That orphan who is possibly a princess?” Delphius sniggered.

Turning to glare sharply at his friend, Vince observed a shining lump of metal road Delphius’ left, lying alone in the midst of the quagmire towards the edge of the converted Chaos base. “Hang on, isn't that…”

Realising that Vince has discovered an object of importance, Delphius similarly rotated his head, discovering a misshapen lump of shining metal complete with a piece of granite encrusted in the centre - Ashangul's crown.

Their fears were confirmed as a resounding, shrill curse broke the tranquil morning air, accompanied by stuttering noises and snapping twigs, confirming that the lunatic king himself had leapt out of the compound.

Great.” Delphius spat at the pyrite crown. “Kirev’s going to force us to ‘take care of him’ now…”

***

Even Delphius’ constant offensive slurs targeted at both the Juggernauts and Ashangul could not reinvigorate the squadrons of Vince, Parean and Nircurus, all trudging on, drained of all life.

“The ruddy lunatic just had to steal some maps on the way!” Delphius grumbled angrily, kicking a few stray pebbles off the pathway. Luckily for them, Ashangul had made himself incredibly easy to track down, leaving trails of dropped maps and documents for the Knights to recover. “I mean, what does he even need them for? I’d be surprised if he could actually read.” He scoffed.

“What does he need them for?” Parean intrigued mentally. “Why would he steal several logistics maps and sketches of our plan of operation?” The materials that Ashangul had collated before escaping had certainly been obtained from a command tent, which he should not have had access to. Parean swore that he was under the watch of a Juggernaut when the supply column arrived, so how did he escape? Surely a Juggernaut would not slack off on their guard duty. “This is not right…”

After a few moments of deeper thought, Delphius’ vicious complaints finally relented while they passed through the gravel trail into the murkier depths of the forest. The morning sun cast elongated fingers of shadows warping their way over the uneven terrain. Now, no one uttered a word.

An abrupt cacophony of maniacal laughter almost certainly signalled their proximity to Ashangul’s location. The sound emanated from a rocky outcrop immersed within the forest, presumably a hollowed-out dwelling which had previously been abandoned, and was now inhabited, given the disrupted vegetation surrounding a small alcove that could possibly lead to an entrance. Leading the column from the front, Nircurus raised his fist to silently command a halt.

The next part of the operation was obvious to the experienced soldiers - form an encirclement of the opposing position and drag Ashangul out, recovering any important documents and eliminating hostile beings along the way. Years of former foraging experience came into play as they all navigated through the thick foliage, keeping their eyes peeled for signs of enemies. On this expedition, none of them had been chosen for this task - the non-combatant shift was instead passed over to those who lacked much military experience.

Drawing closer to the outcrop, several distinct, croaky murmurs wafted through the air towards the troops. A few words caught Vince’s attention: “success”, “failure”, “insane”, “lunatic”, “plan”.., all punctuated by Ashangul's sporadic laughter. There was an air of scheming radiating from the hollow rock, all revolving around the mad king himself.

Following a sequence of hand signals from their captains, their troops prepared to burst in and disrupt the plotting. Samson and Delphius positioned themselves at the edge of what was presumably the entrance to the rock-hewn chamber, parallel to Uldarlas and Wurlam on the other side of the entrance. The alcove appeared to have multiple incisions forming a rough rectangle, the outline of a doorway. Intending to find a subtle method of opening the outdoor chamber, Samson steadily smoothed his hand along the edges of the door. Following a minute of soundless inspection, he shook his head at Vince. It would be impossible to open without making noise to alert the inhabitants.

“Perhaps there is another entrance?” Parean whispered to her fellow captains. “This is a rather odd dwelling, let alone a meeting place, but judging by the size and the number of people audible, there is most likely an underground complex beneath. We can hear traces of their conversations though, so I doubt they expected Ashangul to be followed.”

The soldiers nodded in agreement, fanning out systematically to locate another entrance. However, just as Wurlam strode off to reunite with Parean's squadron, his foot pressed down on a concealed plate, triggering a mysterious bell within the hollow outcrop. The tone of plotting voices switched from elated and bubbly to anxious and concerned. Wurlam had triggered an alarm.

“Who’s there?” a wispy croak emerged from the chamber, now clearly audible. “Animals don't trigger the alarm, so who is there?” Currently, Wurlam had frozen, not daring to step off the plate, while his nervous eyes darted around, appealing for help from his comrades.

A weary traveller sir…” Uldarlas replied in her attempt at the nasal accent attributed to an old woman, in spite of the fit of giggling she was suppressing, examining all the confused and cringing faces of her comrades "Could you let me in please?"

"This is never going to work..." Parean groaned in frustration. This was certainly one of Uldarlas' more creative plans.

Finally, the reply came “Travellers? We don't get many travellers around here…” There was a brief debate audible from within the outcrop before their host continued “I suppose you may enter.”

Uldarlas gawped at her unexpected success and visibly snorted with laughter. Her squad mates, including Parean, were all staring in disarray, discombobulated by the gullible attitude of the greeter. All of them drifted back into position, preparing to storm the hollow. “Why thank you kind sir…

A single incantation sounded from behind the stone slab, and in the blink of an eye, the slab had disappeared. In its place stood a skeleton, emitting a dark red aura with an ossified frill at its collar, while clasping a bone staff in its hand. No sooner had the door opened, it screeched in alarm and desperately raised its staff again to re-summon the solid stone door. Yet another skeleton mage.

Cursing out loud, Delphius instinctively hurled his axe in the direction of the mage, sending it splintering everywhere at the doorway as it exploded from the sheer force of Delphius’ weapon. Seizing the opportunity, the Knights flooded through the constructed entrance, sprinting through the corridor over the mage’s scattered remnants. Their war cry echoed through the chamber as they descended down a short staircase into the cavernous room below, where seven other mages, identical to one another, were assembled at a meeting table illuminated by a smouldering fire midway along the bare stone wall. Upon seeing the Knights, they began to stagger out of their wooden chairs and deploy their magical staffs in a racket of yells, launching waves of hellish fists that burst out of the ground. In the centre of all this commotion, Ashangul had taken to screaming as loud as possible, deafening everyone.

“Foolish Knights, we are descendants of the Morheigai! You shall never defeat us!” One of them roared furiously over the din as he summoned a Reaper ghost, which glided into the incoming Great Knight horde.

“What did they say they were?” Vince hissed at Delphius, who was closest to the front of the charge.

As Delphius’ axe lurched into a spine column, severing it cleanly and sending the target mage’s upper half toppling backwards, he replied “He said ‘Marrowkai’ I think, which sounds pretty fitting.”

“Marrowkai…” Vince muttered under his breath, trying to pronounce the word in spite of Ashangul's on going screaming. Only a few seconds later, a brutal tackle from Delphius immediately removed the nuisance, gesturing at Edlothang to break through and help keep him restrained.

Several ear-splitting shrieks and satisfying sounds of shattering bone later, the entire room had been cleared of the seven Marrowkai. “Did that...did that genuinely work?” Nircurus questioned in disbelief, scanning the bone ridden chamber.

“It worked! Haha, take that Lobaten, you never believed in me, but I’ve succeeded! How does it feel?” Uldarlas jeered in reply, focusing her criticisms on Lobaten, who was clasping his head in frustration at her light hearted mockery.

“Uldarlas, please just shut up!” He moaned, acknowledging the sympathetic, or mocking looks of other knights.

"Well done everyone - make sure to garrison this location and record it on the map. We will investigate the other sections of this complex soon." Parean ordered.

Nircurus added "Prepare to interrogate Ashangul again once he has become conscious. He has an explanation to give us, as incoherent as it may be."

Chapter Ten - Shadow of the Moon Edit

“Did you find anything?” Parean inquired as Vince’s search party returned to the central chamber, having spent an hour exploring the extensive cavern system below.

“We discovered that one cave loops back into itself, which wasn't helpful given how ridiculously long it took to travel through them several times and the complete lack of interesting features.” Samson replied with an air of irritation at the pointless complexities of the underground system. “Did your squadron get anywhere?”

“Only Uldarlas and her division have not returned yet, which is rather worrying...I’m sure they will return soon. In other news, the messengers Nircurus dispatched earlier have returned from the camp, and apparently Kirev is establishing another supply depot there and pushing on with 2,300 soldiers, including us. At least he isn't stretching the logistical system to its absolute limits." An agitated Parean announced.

“Logistical understanding? I suppose they are advocates of efficiency and they want our logistics to be as orderly as possible.” Vince mused “Vectiam has been managing our supplies quite well it seems.”

Parean nodded in reply “Well, we have at least established a robust resupply system with our professional army, so I am definitely grateful for that. That is one of our main advantages against other nations to be honest.”

Already drifting off, Delphius interrupted, bored of logistical talk “So then, how's the lunatic doing?”

“Ashangul has just come to his senses.” Edlothang entered the conversation, striding in from another chamber “We haven't interrogated him yet, just to give him time to recuperate. Should we do that now?”

“Yes, we probably should” Vince affirmed, glancing at Parean, who made a gesture of approval.

Vince’s squadron, alongside Parean, tailed behind Edlothang, traversing the cool tiles of igneous stone marking the path into a more confined room, complete with several seats to the rear of a temporary interrogation set up. The candle flickered as Ashangul hummed his own mantra, with random outbreaks of laughter interrupting his self-directed speech. The two guards behind him were grimacing with discomfort at having to withstand the peculiar behaviour of their subject.

“Captains” Orinfori saluted as they entered the chamber. “So far, nothing unusual has occurred, or at least for his standards.” She stuck a thumb in Ashangul's direction.

“Thank you Orinfori” Parean took her seat opposite to Ashangul, while Vince sat beside her. The plethora of injuries visible on Ashangul's skin had only been bolstered in number by the bruises inflicted by Delphius, and yet, he was fidgeting relentlessly, completely oblivious of the wounds that formed a patchwork wrapped around his body. At present, he was twiddling his thumbs impatiently,  staring down at them.

Vince posed his question first: “King Ashangul Hasetenya-Nigisti of Rovaltinny, can you possibly tell us why you decided to escape from our custody with several important documents belonging to high-ranking Great Knights?”

Turning from his boredom, Ashangul twisted his head up, disturbing Vince with an overextended smile, similar to that of an innocent child, while his eyes bulged out, as though intentionally focusing on him with intent. Vince gulped anxiously, feeling his stomach churn with disgust as he awaited Ashangul's answer.

“They let me in, the large metal-clad soldiers” the lunatic king spoke briefly, and yet seemed completely convinced by his own reply. “One went into my head and...er... told me to go here...and er...take these maps…”

“What? Some Juggernaut let you in and ‘went into your head’? Please explain.” Parean probed, confounded by Ashangul's nonsensical answer.

Hearing Parean's confusion, Ashangul began nodding violently, yelling “Yes, that is what happened!”

“This is going nowhere…” She whispered to Vince “There is no way we can get any sort of sensible explanation.” Turning back to interrogate Ashangul, she inquired once more “Why did you escape and why did you take the maps with you?”

“THEY LET ME!” Ashangul screeched, as his voice cracked in pitch “JUST LIKE THOSE WHO MADE ME KING!”

No more satisfied than previously, Parean buried her head in her hands in disarray “This makes no sense.” She sighed.

“Hang on, let me ask a more simple question which he should be able to answer.” Vince proposed patiently, turning to Ashangul while suppressing his inner discomfort “You're majesty, who ‘made you king’?”

“King? KING? I am a king, yes! It was Chaos! They...KING...made me king...I have always been a king...my mother said I was a king...but no one else did. But Chaos did...so I wanted to come and...help everyone else to see that I was a king…” Ashangul related gleefully, his speech as broken and incoherent as ever. Nonetheless, both Vince are Parean were listening ever more intently.

“How did they ‘help everyone else’?” Parean intrigued, worried by the theory that was unfolding in her head.

“They came in and did clever things...they took Wingsgate, where the people were mean to me...and helped them.” In spite of Ashangul's innocent smile and elated, although somewhat simplified and childish, speech, the sinister undertone permeated throughout his explanation. “They did the same thing in...Roval as well. Now, everyone left knows I am king...even the good mages who helped me...they said I was King and kept on celebrating by drawing.” He gestured to a deep cut embedded in his shoulder. It was in the shape of a skull.

Hesitantly, Vince probed once more “Did you invite Chaos to help you?”

Ashangul nodded “Yes, they helped a lot. Much more than anyone else has.”

“And, were they already on their way?” Vince speculated.

“No, they were going… going...going to go south to those Eclipsors, who...they look like I could be their King... BUT I SAID...come here...and please help me to be king...and I told them about my kingdom. Then, they decided to come here.” Ashangul replied with a dopey grin on his face.

Behind them, Delphius swore prominently as did several others, in shock at what they could interpret. What the false king was saying here could have actually made sense - the Great Knights themselves had intervened in failing proxy wars to establish a puppet ruler. From Ashangul's explanation, he was the puppet ruler that was supposed to take the Crown, most likely until they realised he had no support and was insane. That was a possible motivation to invade Rovaltinny, to bring so much destruction to the relatively tranquil and isolated land.

Yet, there was another purpose in their campaign: mutating. They were yet to discover what this truly meant. This revelation was already too much of a shock.

“Make sure he doesn't escape.” Vince instructed as the majority of them left.

As they exited the chamber, most of them trying to process Ashangul's confession of bringing about the fall of his own homeland, Orinfori grumbled “So, a mentally disabled Wingidon triggered the fall of his own nation in an attempt to gain it for himself. That's just great. This Chaos Empire came because a lunatic asked them to.”

“I'm sure there was at least another motivation for them to continue attacking Rovaltinny. After all, they were still on campaign while disposing of Ashangul. I have a feeling it was something the orphan Amharia informed me of earlier: she described a process of witnessing her friends being transformed into different beings, a process that came to my mind as mutation.” Vince reflected on his first encounter with the tearful Rovalian he had discovered only a day ago.

“To be honest, that does sound rather dubious.” Samson returned.

Before Vince could reply, a scream pierced their ears, originating from outside the complex at the surface, followed by a double horn blast. They were under attack.

“Oh not again!” Vince yelled, rallying his squadron to reinforce Nircurus, who was already on guard.

As he sprinted out from the tight cave-like entrance, he felt an object impact his helmet from above, jolting his head forward as it lodged into the back of the helm. He instinctively ducked to the floor, turning to get a clear view of the source of the arrow, temporarily blinding himself as he stared into the sunlight by accident.

Squinting to recover his own vision, he could make out the silhouettes of “Wingidons?” There was the single shadow of a flying winged figure hovering over the entrance, bow positioned perfectly to target anyone exiting. “What the…?” The sight of a Rovalian firing on his own soldiers filled his mind with confusion. “Hang on - those wings...aren't they bat wings?” Before Vince could focus on the mysterious Wingidon, an axe came hurtling towards it, killing it instantly as it punched through its skull, which produced a puff of smoke as half of the Wingidon evaporated, while its bow clattered on the ground.

Even as Vince continued to ponder, the very soldier who had thrown the axe was himself writhing on the ground in agony from a hail of Dead projectiles. Quickly snapping out of his thinking, he rapidly rushed to raise his shield and block the poison-dripping lumps of flesh. Surrounding their position were a multitude of dead Crawlers who had been finished off by Nircurus’ squadron. Now, they were under siege from another wave of Deads and Marrowkai, reinforced by numerous packs of Crawlers, tearing ferociously at the Great Knight defenders as they sped between their ranks and swarmed individuals to destroy them in detail. At this rate, their squadrons would be diminished to half their original strength in the face of such a bombardment if hey remained out in the open.

“Fall back!” Nircurus ordered “Get back into the cave complex; we can't breakthrough their blockade.” His soldiers complied, as did Vince’s, while a small rear-guard formed to cover the retreat, creating a wedge of upright shields to shelter their comrades from the incoming onslaught.

Vince, now composing part of this final guard, peered over his shield again, ensuring that only a fraction of his face was exposed. There, he could see at least three other Rovalians, all wielding bows and arrows, but instead sporting bat-like wings and a mask encompassing the entire face. "What is going on?” He puzzled. Shuddering from the impact of several projectiles at once, his boot came into contact with the fallen bow of the first Wingidon casualty. Without a second thought,  he fastened his sword in his scabbard and picked up the bow in his free right hand, hoping to investigate it later.

In conjunction with Vince retrieving the dropped bow, the rear-guard methodically poured back into the entrance, being assisted by their other knights as they were lifted over the hastily constructed barricade of rocks to deny access to the Chaos invaders. It was only a matter of seconds before the entire complex was sealed off.

“Why were there Rovalians fighting on the side of Chaos?” A concerned Vince inquired.

“They seemed to be more similar to the Eclipsors that inhabit the regions south of Rovaltinny, who have, on occasion, participated in skirmishes against Rovaltinny, but as far as I am aware, they have been at peace from over 30 years.” Nircurus contributed, as knowledgeably as ever.

“Possibly…” Vince trailed off as he inspected his newly acquired bow. The design was very much reminiscent of that of Amharia's hunting bow. Incredibly so, in fact.

Then, his fingers touched upon a carved indenture in the wood. Intrigued, he turned it over.

Displayed clearly was a five-point star with a pair of Rovalian wings projecting from it. It was a crest of House Tolip. “No…

“Vince, what is it?” Nircurus questioned, coming to the realisation that Vince had discovered something of note.

“This” Vince directed Nircurus’ vision to the crest “That is the crest of House Tolip, one of the seven ruling houses. Are the Eclipsors using Rovalian bows?”

“That seems unlikely, given that the Eclipsors take pride in constructing their own weaponry. If they haven't been at war for over 30 years, basic Eclipsor infantry would not be equipped with an antique captured bow. Perhaps it was a mercenary which looted this off a dead Rovalian?” Nircurus suggested, offering as much of an intellectual answer as possible.

“But why hire mercenaries from an even more inaccessible location in such a campaign, when you have enough soldiers to overwhelm the bulk of your enemy's army? Surely you don't need mercenaries when your army is, well, undead? They appear to have sorcerers on their side, which I am rather uncomfortable about.” Vince debated.

“What if those Eclipsors were actually undead Rovalians?”

Both captains twisted their heads round, initially amused by the statement, until they realised that it was Yaleris, offering a serious explanation.

“That would require dead Rovalian bodies being transformed into Eclipsors…oh…” Nircurus faced Vince once more, an expression of peculiar anxiety etched onto his face.

Transformed…” All three of them were simply staring at each other with concern at their unsettling new theory: “They were mutated…”

***

“Where are their squadrons of Vince, Parean and Nircurus? They were supposed to rendezvous back here at 12 o’clock at the very latest, and it is currently twenty past 1.” Tangeldis sighed, constantly checking the sundial to ensure that her statement was correct.

“Perhaps they are in the act of pursuing Ashangul at this very moment?” Pepin suggested, albeit in a slightly depressed tone.

“Possibly” Rerhdurk shrugged thoughtfully “but it should not take 4 hours to pursue an insane individual without rest. Besides, their messengers returned several hours ago to report that they found Ashangul, before leaving again. Maybe they have engaged another Chaos patrol? Or perhaps the lunatic escaped?”

Tired, Pepin grunted in concurrence. He was still reflecting sorrowfully of how, only 24 hours ago, he had been complaining to himself about the hardships of his position as a general. Now, he was revelling in frustration at his unjust demotion in place of his authoritarian arch-nemesis Kirev. It would only be a matter of time before the expedition would be wiped out by the latter's complete disregard for the lives of his own soldiers, while all Pepin could conceivably do was to stand at the sidelines avoiding Kirev’s wrath, hoping that he would not be the next Knight to be disposed of in the meat grinder of the expedition.

"Kirev has truly overstretched himself this time." Pepin concluded, weighing up all of the Juggernaut's plan to blaze through all of Rovaltinny. Without cavalry support and enough experienced soldiers, their momentum would slow and culminate in the deaths of almost everyone involved through a series of mass charges on heavily fortified positions. It was the set piece battle that the Knights excelled at, not charging blindly into a region where guerilla tactics could be used to a devastating effect.

"Captain Nessconui, Franciscus, Von Kark, prepare your squadrons to move out now!" Uialok’s voice rang out, disrupting Pepin's reflection.

In reaction, Tangeldis grunted in comprehension, more so in her resentment for Uialok, who had replaced her from her relatively high position of command.

“At least our logistics aren't being stretched to the absolute limit, which would be horrendous if they were, and most likely lead to everyone dying given the precautions Chaos has against foraging parties.” Vectiam entered, holding Amharia's miniscule hand, while clutching a report with the other.

"Supplies won't matter if no one is left to be supplied." Pepin seethed slyly, provoking gestures of agreement from the others.

“I remember that supplies were very important for the military. That was why my father never approved of one of my half brothers joining the army as an officer, which would be necessary, because he didn't know how to manage any sorts of supplies and completely lacked the patience to wait for them.” Amharia mused.

“How was it necessary that he join the military as an officer immediately?” Tangeldis intrigued.

Realising that she may have accidentally revealed more, Amharia nevertheless gave a brief reply: “He was a prince.” Tangeldis stayed silent.

Rethdurk added "Well, we must attempt to adapt in some form, unlike Galderian, because disobeying orders is probably just as suicidal as following..."

"Captain Von Kark, General Firiskiy requests to see you immediately. You are to report on his tent now. Is that understood?" Uialok suddenly intruded, causing Rethdurk to jolt in shock.

"Yes ma'am." He replied automatically. "Katos, why didn't you tell me?" Rethdurk scolded his mental companion.

"Honestly, I did not see her approaching! Their aura seems to just deflect all my attempts at detection. It's incredibly bizarre!" Katos answered, himself confused by his failure to warn Rethdurk.

"Or perhaps you need to remain vigilant?" Rethdurk returned, slightly disgruntled.

"Rethdurk, I swear I couldn't see Uialok approaching." Katos spoke with incredible seriousness.

"Fine, but do stay vigilant." He finished, swallowing anxiously as he ran through the possible reasons for being recalled to meet Kirev. Glancing at his companions nervously and waving farewell, he marched away, following Uialok. As he did so, he noticed how perfectly uniform all the tents were, arranged in a neat grid structure. Drawing closer, Katos began whispering about how he somehow felt queasy, despite lacking a physical body, at which point Rethdurk politely asked him to be silent.

Soon, he was flanked by several Juggernauts, all of whom were silent as he approached and parted to allow them through. Uialok stepped forward first, ringing a bell at the side of the enlarged command tent, and waited for Kirev's low growling reply.

"Come in." The voice emanated from the command structure. Rethdurk complied without a word, blotting out Katos' nauseous groans as he lifted up the tent entrance.

"Greetings Captain Von Kark" Kirev extended an armour-clad hand to the captain, with a distorted grin on his helmetless face as he sat from his desk.

Rethdurk replied spontaneously "Hello sir", saluting before shaking his hand and taking a seat. “Katos, please be quiet!” He continued to attempt disciplining his mental companion, only to hear a relentless, low groan droning on in his mind. “Never mind" he sighed to himself.

“Sir, why was I recalled here?” Rethdurk intrigued, intent on discovering the aim of this meeting to prevent remaining with the tyrannical general for any longer than necessary, particularly with Katos in apparent pain.

“During the recent assault on the Chaos stronghold, your squadron performed exceptionally well. Of the five squadrons I dispatched to that sector, yours was the only to comply and advance towards their objective, while the the the squadrons remained fighting a stalemate without using a speed advantage.” Kirev relayed with incredible speed, and just as he paused, he resumed his praise before Rethdurk could comment formatively. “Had your squadron failed to do so, the entire assault would have spiralled into defeat if less areas were put under pressure. As a result, I would personally like to promote you to the rank of commander for your efforts and ability to press the objective when necessary. That, I feel, is an important quality in a leader who has the humbleness not to disobey orders at every possible opportunity. Combined with your fighting skills, all of us have come to the general consensus that you are the perfect candidate.”

Rethdurk blinked, trying to comprehend all of Kirev’s seemingly positive comments on his ability to follow orders. Slightly concerned, he questioned his own promotion “What about the severe losses we…”

“You all suffer ‘severe losses’ in war. It is not a concern when we consider your command capabilities however, and therefore your promotion is imminent.” Kirev stood upright, now towering over Rethdurk. “We shall assemble the entire expedition at half past two to witness your promotion ceremony before we depart. I hope do not disappoint us.” He finished with an intimidatingly confident smile before marching out of the tent, leaving Rethdurk alone to reflect on his words, as best as he could in spite of Katos’ audible pain.

So, I’ve been promoted for following orders, and essentially for having you, Katos. That's something…”

***

“Are they attempting to starve us out? We have been here for an hour now, and not a single Dead has moved position. They are all completely static, with the exception of those mutant Rovalians. From the sun's position, I deduce that it is somewhere near two o'clock.” Yaleris delivered her commentary inconspicuously while peeping through the thin slits in the rubble blocking the entrance to the cavern system.

“We don't know for sure that these are mutant Rovalians.” Orinfori dismissed her claims. “Have we found an alternative exit?” She inquested behind her.

“Not yet” came Parean's reply, frustrated at Uldarlas’ disappearance. “But I'm unwilling to breakout from this entrance.”

“Captains! Lobaten and his detachment have returned!” Wurlam’s voice cried out in exclamation. Parean reacted immediately and began sprinting deeper into the the dimly-lit areas of the cave.

“Lobaten, where were you?” She interrogated, relieved that at least some of her soldiers had returned intact.

“We lost our way through the cave system and Uldarlas went ahead with a few others to find an exit above us. However, that plan went awry…” Lobaten drifted off into silence, pausing to reflect before he continued “...and the cave collapsed while they were scaling a path up to the surface. They are most likely dead.”

Parean cursed internally, glancing at the ground as she clenched her eyelids shut and grinded her teeth to suppress her combined anger and sorrow. “Do you have any good news?”

“We found another exit.” Lobaten offered.

Consoled by this discovery, Parean nodded “Excellent.”

***

“Promotion? For following orders? That is actually hilarious!” Tillecthel scoffed as a beaming Rethdurk wandered towards his friends, endowed with shining ornamental decorations on a new set of armour from his promotion ceremony. “Well, at least you get more fancy armour to show off to your aristocratic friends.”

“My aristocratic friends? Yeah, sure” Rethdurk smirked back in reply.

“Honestly though, Rethdurk, this is most likely some sort of ploy by Kirev to encourage loyalism to is cause just before we embark on another suicidal venture.” Pepin remarked grimly. “Given how impressionable many of these young soldiers are, some will undoubtedly turn against us for not obeying Kirev’s orders to the letter.”

“Possibly, but I can't reject this promotion outright.” Rethdurk returned, before turning to question himself internally. “Katos, are you there? You’ve been quiet for a while."

Yes, but I feel...confounded...I lack all recollection of any events after you entered the tent. Even now I feel odd. These Juggernauts worry me quite a bit.” Katos finally answered coherently. “I don't like this at all.

Well, at least the responsibilities of a commander are barely anything to worry about, so I'll be fine for now.” Rethdurk mused casually

That’s not my point! I cannot actually protect you against them if I become disabled as I did then.” Katos scolded sharply.

Make sure you don't allow that to happen then.

“Assemble at parade square in half an hour; prepare to march out!” A Juggernaut’s order quickly broke Rethdurk's internal dialogue. “Here we go then…”

***

“Fresh air! Finally, freedom! Oh, and the sun’s still out.” Delphius exclaimed with glee as they emerged from an inconspicuous tunnel opening up onto a gentle-sloping mountainside that resided over the vast stretches of Rovalian forest. His ecstatic whooping could be heard for miles.

“Make sure to restrain Ashangul again.” Parean instructed a few of her soldiers, glaring at the insane king, who was now sporting his mockery of a crown in addition to his scarred and deformed body. Nircurus’ squadron was bringing up the rear, taking with them the remainder of the field supplies and the maps requisitioned from Ashangul.

In the meantime, Vince’s squadron had positioned themselves on a slight platform, bathing in the warm, but soothing, sunlight in all its glory as the bulbous orb illuminated the entire region. The lack of clouds gave the sky its characteristic blue hue, which the Knights had not seen for some time since departing from their homeland.

Somehow, its warmth was decreasing, almost as if a shadow was creeping up to it. “Is it getting colder, or is that just me?’’ he inquired to his friends, all of whom turned to him with faces portraying equal confusion.

“Hang on a few seconds” Samson uttered as he raised his hands to shield his eyes as he attempted to indirectly inspect what was happening to the sun. Squinting, he could make out a broad, black object drifting, almost as if it was about to blot out their only source of light. “This seems to be an eclipse.” He concluded, beaming. “I brought a rudimentary eclipse observation kit with me just for this occasion.” He declared, taking out a collared tube and black parchment. He positioned the tube at his side to align with the sun’s rays until an artificial shadow was no longer present, before laying the parchment down to the ground, observing a crescent shape progressively conquering all of the sun's light. “Fascinating” Samson spoke as he remained fixated to the parchment, as did several others.

“I’ve read all about these eclipses and...they certainly don't do that.” In a split, Samson’s tone shifted from eccentric to concerned.

“What’s wrong Samson?” Vince inquired, shuffling closer to observe whatever was happening.

“There are small blobs separating themselves from the moon’s shadow, and some seem to be enlarging…”

“Incoming Eclipsor-Rovalians!” Edlothang yelled in warning, pointing at the winged creatures wielding bows that were almost diving towards them from a high altitude.

Instinctively, all of the soldiers raised their shields in a defensive stance above them, blocking the first few arrows that began peppering them, accompanied by the typical cackling from Ashangul. But this could not last.

“Captain, how are we supposed to take them out?” Wurlam screeched, as a single arrow rebounded on the stone in front if him.

Parean caught sight of the shadows of her opponents before speaking up. “Throw your axes, NOW!” Her instruction was followed by a hail of flying axes and spears from behind as Nircurus’ composite squadron unleashed as many missiles as possible. Most hit their intended targets, evaporating the mutant Rovalians into dark powder and smoke, while other bodily parts, such as their innards and parts of their skinny wings collapsed to the ground.

However, the other five survivors seemed unconcerned with their sudden reduction in numbers and immediately scattered while aiming at the Knights restraining Ashangul. All five arrows fired in synchronisation and struck one knight in several exposed positions, piercing the neck and eye, killing her instantly before she could raise her own shield to a suitable angle.

“Prevent them from freeing Ashangul!” Another spear finally succeeded in killing another mutant Rovalian, although it was to no avail. Ashangul's violent struggle to escape finally succeeded as he knocked one knight into Edlothang and flapped his wings rapidly, rising upwards and retreating behind his airborne rescuers. They all fled the scene, firing arrows behind them as they retreated to safety.

There was a collective groan from the Knights. "Well, that was a ruddy waste of time!" Delphius picked up a loose pebble and hurled it now the direction of the fleeing Wingidons. "We just lost our target."

"At least we have more information from him. I doubt we could have extracted any more." Samson replied. "I'm more concerned about that." He pointed in the direction of the road.

“I can still see more mutant Rovalians flying towards the road. It appears get are setting up an assault to inflict damage on Kirev’s column.” Nircurus observed. “With this eclipse, a correctly timed attack would definitely have the element of surprise. We can't warn them in time.”

“Let's just hope they can fight them off.” Vince gulped anxiously “We do need to aid them regardless though. To the road!”

***

Why is it getting darker? It's only around four o’clock?” Pepin screwed his eyes up as the darkness of the forest began invading his vision. “Tangeldis, is this the anticipated eclipse?”

“Yes, it seems it is…and it doesn't feel right.” Tangeldis replied.

Vectiam concurred “Agreed, I sense that we are being watched, almost like that ambush near Blebfennas. Keep vigilant.”

“Hey, are those Rovalians? I see quite a few coming towards us.” Tillecthel inquired, gesturing at the faded silhouettes of flying creatures equipped with bows.

“Those…” Pepin halted the delivery of his suggestion as he caught sight of Amharia, whose eyes were transfixed on the approaching winged figures in fear.

“They’re not Rovalians...not anymore…” She spoke with terror firmly ingrained in her voice “They have been mutated. We are not safe here.”

Noticing Amharia's trembling state, Vectiam called out “Lieutenant General Uialok, we have incoming mutant...things approaching us. Should we prepare to engage them?”

“Yes, we should, and for your information, they are called Eclipsors.” The firm reply of Uialok came, which curiously enough, contained an undertone of excitement. Pepin rolled his eyes as he prepared to fight for the Juggernauts’ cause once again in a suicidal fashion.

“No, those are almost like Eclipsors, but they all used to be Rovalians. They are not full Eclipsors.” Amharia silently corrected her, ensuring that her neighbours were not incorrectly informed.

“So, proto-Eclipsors in a sense then.” Vectiam suggested.

Oblivious as to the meaning of proto, Amharia shook her head and shrugged.

“Skirmishers, fan out and see if you can hit the Eclipsors from as many angles as possible.” Uialok continued distributing her orders. “Prepare to defend against any ground assaults as well.”

“Katos, can you see anything?” Rethdurk began gathering intelligence from his spirit companion, as was his usual protocol. Only this time, it was interrupted with an ear-splitting shriek inside his mind. He doubled over and collapsed onto the muddy path, utterly incapacitated and drawing attention from his alarmed peers.

All of a sudden, hisses, moans and creaks began to be picked up from within the forest. The column ground to a complete halt as all soldiers drew their weapons in anticipation for another ferocious Chaos attack. Their swords, axes, halberds and spears glimmered in the fading remnants of sunlight.

Proto-Eclipsors were drawing ever closer to the Great Knight column, still out of range of the skirmishers. Bulbous red eyes were visible from the depths of the forest and the faint odour of rotting innards wafted towards them. “Here they come” Tangeldis whispered in anticipation, raising her spear and shield in a hoplite-esque style. Even Amharia had retrieved her bow and a handful of arrows from Vectiam's rucksack, while also taking out a dagger with an encrusted scabbard without anyone noticing. Pepin strengthened his grip around a throwing axe, ready to strike at the closest Chaos abomination. All of their respective squadrons assembled beside their commanders, who began spreading across the edge of the column.

The uniform growl and moan of Deads erupted in a cacophony of noise, succeeded by a hail of detached innards pelting the column. From above, the proto-Eclipsors aimed their bows and picked out the skirmishers first, killing several in their first volley. Then, arcane whispers foreshadowed the line of Hell Fists springing up from the road and smashing upwards through their improvised defensive structures and carts. In the midst of all the chaos, Crawlers began arrive in a mass exodus as they darted and clawed their way into the column. They were under attack from every single angle achievable: above, around and underneath.

Pepin cursed as a Crawler tore at his shin, immediately bringing down his shield to punch a dent in its skull to kill it. Just as he finished off the Crawler, a handful of arrows began peppering his location, with one slamming directly into his helmet and embedding itself in the thick crest. He glanced up to see the suspected attacker disintegrating in mid-air from a skirmisher’s weapon. The distraction was short lived as a poorly-aimed decaying kidney squelched from an impact with his shield, resulting in Pepin hurling a light axe directly at the Dead from which the kidney originated from, killing it as it melted into a pool of blood and bones.

A pair of Crawlers continued to press the attack and leapt at Pepin's flanks, who reacted by ducking and shielding himself while swinging his axe out in the open, ripping through one abdomen and leaving a crippled body to flop onto the ground and due of blood loss. The other Crawler scraped its claws against Pepin's polished shield, and was promptly jolted off and ended by a rapid strike to the neck.

Surveying his surroundings for any immanent dangers, he spotted Vectiam, positioned to defend the front of the baggage train, fighting alongside Amharia, who was firing arrows in several directions. Regardless of the relative weakness of Amharia's hunting bow, she was successfully hitting Crawlers, and in some cases, killing them outright. However, there were dense concentrations of projectiles being fired at them and the squadrons defending the baggage train, as opposed to the soldiers on the outside of the formation, who posed more of a threat to the attackers. “Why are they attacking our weaker soldiers first…

His train of thought was violently broken by a chain of Hell Fists, which burst out of the ground, narrowly avoiding him as they blasted a path through the densely packed defenders. “Axe throwers, franciscas at the ready!” Pepin barked hastily, preparing to counter the follow up charge of a fresh pack of Crawlers. With a brief pause of a few seconds, he yelled again, hurling his own axe under the covers of his shield. The blade slammed into the approaching Crawler mass, brutalising the components and sending chunks of their bodies spinning everywhere.

Agitated by the constant influx of Chaos soldiers, Pepin cried out “How many of them are there? Rethdurk? Tangeldis?” Just as he did so, he stumbled as he shifted rearwards, nearly tripping over Rethdurk’s prone body. The young aristocratic was still clutching his head in pain, pain which Pepin could not detect the source of. Searching instead for Tangeldis, he twisted his head in the other direction, maintaining his protective posture. After fighting off a few more Deads and Crawlers, he caught sight of both Tangeldis and Tillecthel spearing Crawlers through the neck and massacring them in droves by mechanically stabbing their spears and driving then into the charging Crawlers.

Satisfied that his comrades were able to resist the unending onslaught, he shifted his attention to Vectiam, whose section was suffering the worst of the bombardment. “Amharia, can you take those proto-Eclipsors out?” she requested “Do you think you can fly up?”

“I don't know” she trembled as she loosed another arrow upwards, which struck the wing of a proto-Eclipsor, which promptly combusted part way into smoke. Vectiam surged her shield forward again to shelter Amharia from the retaliatory barrage of arrows. From the safety of Vectiam's cover, Amharia could observed the numerous Wingidons who had fallen prey to the horrific mutation process forced upon them by Chaos. She shuddered in fear as she recalled witnessing it, gripped by fear as she spied on her friends writhing in agony as they were transformed into mindless Chaos slaves.

Using her last arrow, she reloaded her bow with caution, surveying any suitable targets and locating one distracted Eclipsor, who was harassing the several Knights cowering directly below. She raised her bow and took aim.

Without warning, a body collapsed on Amharia, knocking her aim off and pinning her miniscule child’s body on the ground. Miraculously, the arrow had been released only within a fraction of a second and managed to hit the intended target, knocking its mask off and and sending it crashing to the ground, still alive. Pushing with all her might, Amharia successfully slipped out from beneath the body.

Then she froze. The body was Vectiam's, who was groaning in pain as poison from the impacts of numerous Dead projectiles seeped through her armour, clutching the infected patches with her right hand.

A stray arrow that narrowly avoided Amharia brought her back to her senses, prompting her to crouch down to stay out of the way of any incoming fire. “Captain Vectiam, what happened? Are you ok?” She panicked frantically.

“Yeah, I'm fine Amharia, could you just help me back up please?” Vectiam answered calmly, smiling reassuringly to mask the pain of the poison.

Amharia nodded in compliance, tugging Vectiam's arm to support her as she staggered back onto her feet. However, as she did so, her peripheral vision detected a familiar face lurking on the battlefield. Not one of a Knight, but a fellow Wingidon. “Surely not?” She whispered to herself.

“What is it Amharia?” Vectiam inquired, blocking a few arrows coming from the other direction. “Amharia, who are you looking at?”

The Wingidon failed to respond. Instead, her eyes were wide-open, focused on the mutant approaching without a mask, all the while brandishing his longbow threateningly, preparing an arrow. “Negus? Is that you?”

The proto-Eclipsor cocked his head to the side in reaction to Amharia's question, and expression of fear and pain mixed with a psychopathic grin. A small chunk of his face was missing, and his eyes glowed a brilliant red as they widened in recognition.“It is you....what have they done?” She swallowed, tears welling up in her eyes once again, blinding her from the fact that Negus was gradually lifting his loaded bow to target her.

“Negus, can you hear me?” Amharia inquired, hoping for some sort of coherent response as she gently placed her bow on the floor and raised her hands as if to embrace him. The proto-Eclipsor only drew closer, his face in a state of flux between the remnants of the belligerent young Wingidon prince he once was, and the mindless enslaved Eclipsor he was serving as. His arm began trembling in pain as it began to weaken from holding the tugging his longbow with momentous force.

“Amharia, what are you doing?” Vectiam yelled fearfully as Amharia remained motionless in the path of a direct longbow shot at near point blank range.

“He can hear me, he can hear me…” Amharia mumbled to herself, trying to convince herself that Negus was still there. “Negus, lower the bow, it's me, your half-sister, remember? Amharia? Remember when we used to go flying together with dad? You don't need to…”

The arrow burst out of its place, on a direct course to punch a hole in Amharia's head. She flinched in a futile effort to dodge it, bracing in those fractions of a second for the impact. It never came.

Collapsing to the ground in front of her was Vectiam. The arrow, at such a close range from a powerful bow, had penetrated straight through her chest, piercing her right lung and sending her reeling backwards to fall.

Negus, confounded by the conflicting personalities in his mind, remained perfectly still, silently observing an anguished Amharia fretting over Vectiam’s dead body.

The slaughter that had occurred in the last ten minutes had left the column obliterated, while the Chaos forces at the road side had received a similar beating. With both sides exhausted, the Chaos ambush retreated, including Negus, leaving a shattered group of Great Knights and a mourning Amharia, alone in the shadow of the Moon.

Chapter Eleven - Long Way From Home Edit

“800 losses? How did…never mind.” Parean gawped at their staggering casualties, feeling a distinct loathing for the Juggernauts who had allowed so many deaths to occur.

“It was quite a severe ambush. We lost a third of all our soldiers because of the Juggernauts’ incompetence.” Pepin spoke bitterly, addressing all of the squadrons that had missed out on the massacre.

The time had come to once again set up camp, this time in the rubble of another city, namely Duiost. This was once the nexus of the Rovalian military, having been established as a key defensive position to defend Roval in the early days of Rovaltinny’s existence, from the Aksuntu Civil War. Now, much like Blebfennas and Roval, it had been levelled to the ground. The fortifications had been erased and the population extirpated. Even in the darkness of the night, where the full scale of devastation could not be unveiled, it was clear that there had been fierce fighting on the part of the Rovalians the defend this city, and as a result, it seemed even less likely that any survivors existed. For one, there was not a single structure remaining that was above waist height. Such was the nature of the city’s destruction.

“How does Kirev continue to expect undying loyalty to his cause if he is gradually killing half of them?” Samson mused.

“I’m starting to think he isn't.” Pepin stared bluntly “He enforces loyalty with brutality, which means that either way, you end up dead. Just like Vectiam.”

They all nodded in solemn agreement at Vectiam's death. “We didn't even have an opportunity to create individual graves; all the bodies were dumped in a mass grave nearby.” He added.

Nircurus responded “Then again, if you lose 800 soldiers in a single day, a mass grave is the only practical short term solution. Consequently, you simply don't take those losses.” His comment was met with grunts of approval. “Anyway, it would very best for all of us to recuperate in preparation for one of the general’s high-casualty attacks again.”

As the group dispersed to their own tents, Vince, Delphius and Samson were left to steadily plod to theirs along the moist ground, spouting their frustration.

“Why are we still in this bloody hell hole? I honestly don't understand.” Delphius groaned.

“You are ‘in this bloody hell hole’ because you failed to come earlier!” A sharp voice yelled from the side. All three of the Knights twisted their heads to investigate.

Standing erect in a pompous posture, Captain Tebekel Yebetes strode gracefully out to meet them, his head raised high in a look of both haughty disdain and anger. His presumably stately wings were folded on his back, adding to his average stature, yet his face was inclined slightly, magnifying his frustration in their direction.

"Listen here you fools, your nation's failure to meet their promise in time means that you shall help us reclaim our homeland." Tebekel chided sharply.

Delphius snorted "Reclaiming your homeland is going to be impossible."

"My family is now trapped in the midst of enemy territory due to this expedition's tardiness, and I intend to do everything in my power to save them. A family is the most important group anyone belongs to, and their nation comes second. Understand that and never question it again."

Before Vince or Samson could interject, Delphius responded again "A family is the most important? I have trouble believing that."

Tebekel glared at him in shock, his dark eyes boring into Delphius, who appeared completely calm. "Has that truth never occurred to you?" He stepped towards Delphius threateningly.

"Truth? Psst, no, and it won't ever occur to me." Delphius replied casually.

"You question a basic value of life?" Tebekel probed further.

Smiling, Delphius spoke again: "Yes" and turned away, grinning to himself. Samson and Vince followed him without a word.

"How about you captain?" Tebekel yelled, directing his question at Vince, who winced as he heard it. Glancing back, he gave a quick reply "It matters to me, but perhaps not others."

"And you think that your subordinate's behaviour is acceptable? You won't punish him for violating that?"

"No, I won't." Vince walked off.

Once they were out of earshot from Tebekel, Delphius sniggered "Family is more important? Well he never met mine."

"Yes, that is true" Vince reflected in solemn agreement.

***

“Where am I?” Galderian groaned in agony, rubbing his head with his shackled hand.

“Welcome Galderian, to the mobile prison of the Great Knights, my home.” A loud voice boomed in his right ear.

“Who...oh” Galderian registered the identity of his cellmate: Grifo. "It's you."

Illuminated by a thin slit of light breaking through the decrepit ceiling, Grifo’s face lit up cheerily at his recognition, in spite of the scars and scabs littered over it from his previous punishment. “So, how did you get here?” He inquired. “You’ve been out cold for around 24 hours.”

“I told General Kirev his plan was severely flawed and suicidal, which resulted in me being knocked out.” Galderian reported, a hint of anger at his punishment underlying his voice.

“Ooh, yeah that was a bad decision, although I’ve made plenty more, so don't be disheartened.” Grifo responded sympathetically.

“I have made others as well, including criticising high ranking commanders, but that usually just earns me a demotion and nothing more. What mistakes have you made?” Galderian intrigued.

“Many, but here are my most major recent ones: firstly, I decided to scam a high ranking figure in society; secondly, I was caught by the authorities; thirdly, it was annoying Pepin while in Tangeldis’ presence, which earned me all of these injuries.” He gestured to all the wounds which had healed up in the past few days. “Getting caught was the worst mistake though.”

“You were ‘scamming a high ranking figure in the society’? Who and why?” Galderian returned.

“Well, it wasn't just me, I had a whole group of five who had been operating scams on the streets of Invinojug for years, but I thought we could do it, like we had with hundreds of other operations. Perhaps we got a bit cocky while scamming Lord Beriaur…”

“Wait, you attempted to scam Lord Beriaur? What are you, stupid?” Galderian exclaimed in surprise at Grifo’s audacity.

“Perhaps I didn't expect that his guards would kill the rest of the group and imprison me as soon as he found out. I did think I was also going to execute me, but before that was due, I was given the opportunity to save myself by joining the army as a militia soldier. Then I found General Pepin.” Grifo reminisced.

“You found General Pepin?” The other inquired in confusion.

Grifo nodded in contemplation “Yes, the most lenient military commander in existence. It took five insults for him to place me under arrest, and I was provided for well and he didn't report me or court-martial me! It was brilliant - I was going to get through the expedition having escaped fighting completely, since I knew that Pepin would never be able to punish me himself, well, until Tangeldis was present.

“Did you already know him?” Galderian probed.

Knowingly, Grifo answered “Yes, I knew him from many stories my mother used to tell about how our birthright,was stolen from us and we had to live on the streets for a few generations. It was the Franciscus branch of the family which completely ousted us, and Pepin is one of them. One day, I just aim to get off the streets, get a job and finally live in a standard house, and scams and thievery were the only way for me to achieve that.”

“You haven't thought about any other career options?” Galderian questioned him.

“No, not really, but I’m good at those, so I’ll stick to them, but I don't know how long that will last.” Grifo’s smile faltered. “How long any of us will last now.”

Galderian nodded “Kirev is going to get us killed no matter...”

A loud rattling sound echoed down the chamber, interrupting their conversation. In a brief moment of silence, Galderian whispered “What was that?”

“Oh, I forgot about this. A bunch of Knights and militia are planning a mutiny, but I know it will fail. It would be best to keep out of it.” Grifo answered dismissively.

“This is an opportunity to escape! If we can successfully spread the news, we can turn the entire expedition against the Juggernauts and end this campaign!” Galderian hissed excitably.

“But it won't work. Trust me.” He leaned back against the wall of the cell, closing his eyes.

“We can't just…” Galderian's protesting halted immediately as he winced in pain while jolting his hand forward to escape, straining his hand.

“The Juggernauts will slaughter them completely.” Grifo asserted.

Dejectedly, Galderian stopped his attempts to tug on his chains. Yet, yelps of pain could be heard from further down the corridor.

“Freedom boys! Let's kill those ruddy Juggernauts!” The cry uttered from another chamber. Bars and doors were shifted consistently in a cacophony of metallic sounds accompanied by victorious roars, all while both Galderian and Grifo remained seated in their cell, one fidgeting relentlessly, the other completely subdued.

“Oi, you two!” A harsh rasp redirected their attention to the somewhat skinny, buck-toothed militia halberdier at the door of the cell, holding in his hands a bloodied set of keys, which he used to enter.

“Let's get out of here and kill that Juggernaut!” He yelled with a determined grin while undoing their chains. Galderian glanced at Grifo, who was shaking his head. “Sorry mate, but it won't work.” The latter spoke.

“What do you…” The halberdier jumped at the sound of a large crash to the rear, succeeded by the nightmarish sound of flesh being turned apart by steel appendages.

“I think the Juggernauts know how to contain a petty uprising of unarmed prisoners.” Grifo sighed in conjunction with another door splintering into oblivion, wounding several prisoners as invincible hulks of metal decimated everything in their path.

“Maybe going back to your cell now would be a good idea.”

“But we’re…” Another explosion cut off his protest, and the halberdier gulped anxiously.

“You are not close to victory, just return while you can, and maybe you'll survive a bit longer." Grifo smirked knowingly.

“Grifo, you seem awfully confident of that…” Galderian narrowed his eyes at his companion.

The fellow prisoner chuckled, his eyes full of malice “Oh well, it was all for a greater cause: my freedom.”

"What?" Blood drained from Galderian's face as he registered Grifo’s selfish betrayal. "Why you little…” Galderian glared at him "You betrayed your fellow Knights for your own freedom? Why would you do that?” He attempted to throw a sudden punch at the traitor, but his chains restrained him from doing so.

The halberdier joined in with expressing his shock “Grifo, you betrayed us? How could you! You slimy piece of…”

“Yes, I did - what did you expect?” Grifo yelled back. “Kirev approached me with the promise of freedom, as long as I did a final delivery job for him afterwards. Then I could go free.” Grifo’s tone became serene, apparently enjoying Galderian's visible hatred of him.

“That was another of your horrific mistakes Grifo. You will regret it.” Galderian's voice was once again charged with fury.

“Not necessarily.” The traitor leered. “My other choice was execution. The choice was obvious: expose a mutiny that was definitely going to fail, or die. I had to give Kirev some sort of information, or he would have just killed me on the spot. As a matter if fact, I’m surprised that he didn't kill you on the spot given how much of a whiny…”

“Grifo, I swear, we are going to tear your brains out of your head!” The halberdier threatened, equally infuriated at his betrayal. “In fact, I’m gonna do that right now myself.” Fixing his eyes on Grifo’s head, he picked up his reclaimed halberd, and prepared to land a strike.

“I wouldn't do that if I were you.” Grifo remained arrogantly confident, gesturing in the direction of another explosion, in spite of the menacing halberd that was perfectly positioned to split his skull. “The Juggernauts are rather close now. In fact, they are very close.”

“I don't car-” The halberdier’s attack halted, and he dropped his weapon, clutching his chest in pain, where a sharp blade of steel was embedded. With a small groan, he collapsed to the ground, blood trickling from his mouth and wound. Galderian gulped in fear.

The blade was retracted back through the body, and retrieved by an iron-clad monster, comparatively smaller than the others, but equipped with a range of blades, all of which were now lathered with the blood of former prisoners, and easily larger than any other Knight. “Well, Grifo Odilombar, it seems you were right after all - a good decision there.General Firiskiy requests your presence immediately.” The Juggernaut’s nasal voice seemed to frustrate Galderian even further.

“Yes sir.” Grifo smirked as his chains came loose. “Farewell Galderian Harnius, looks like Ilfibrir Turang here agrees with me.”

Galderian made a rude gesture at the traitor as he marched out if the cell under the watchful guide of the Juggernaut Ilfibrir. “I hope you die a painful death Grifo.”

***

“So then, Odilombar, a militia soldier who was conscripted for military service in exchange for escaping execution. Now that you have served us to some extent, we have one more task for you. Delivering these corpses outside one of their minor camps as a warning sign.” Kirev spoke plainly, flickering his eyes up momebtarily to judge Grifo’s reactions, all of which were perfectly controlled and collected. “Afterwards, you will be completely free and left to your own devices.”

Grifo's cool demeanour faltered slightly as he inquired “Do I get any money to sustain myself with? Or a free ride home?”

“No” came Kirev’s terse reply.

“What?” Grifo dropped any pretence of contentment. “That's a joke, right? You're going to set me free put in the wilderness with no way to survive and no money?”

“Yes - the deal was that you would be set free, not that we would supply you with anything extra. Now, l advise that you leave before we all-” Kirev pointed to his fellow Juggernauts “-decide to torture you to death for fun.”

***

“I should have known that they were going to scam me. Oh great, they pulled a scam on a scammer.” Grifo plodded dejectedly through the forest, a corpse-laden cart trundling behind him. Even with only a few detached body parts on the compact cart, Grifo was having difficulty tugging it along the poorly maintained road, cursing continually at the futility of his assignment.

“Absolute scumbags, if only I could just ditch these bodies and steal some money…oh…” The traitor sneered at the stupidity of the Juggernauts - he could simply abandon this laborious chore and try and retreat to the previous depot, steal a few supplies, and keep on going until he reached the coast. Surely, he could find a way back to Ramus, the homeland of the Great Knights from there.

“Haha, compete idiots!” he chortled victoriously. Surveying his surroundings to ensure that no Great Knight had followed him, he slunk off into the forest, until he paused again. He had absolutely no idea how to get back to the other depots without following the main road or risking the many Crawlers lurking in the dense forests.

“Oh never mind. It’s probably suicidal.” He reflected, once again defeated. “Time to get back to the delivery service and...perhaps Chaos could help me?”Another bizarre idea cropped up in his head. He could attempt to give them information in exchange for money and a safe journey home. Grifo could claim to be a defector and pledge his service to them by becoming a spy and returning home, where he could love a normal life. “That seems to be the best option” He concluded, and returned to his task of transportation. “That escape was more chaotic than I imagined.” He mused. “In fact, all that I need is a money, protection and a safe way back home - surely they can provide that for me without any problems. They have just destroyed an entire country; they can cater for one simple defector.”

Squelch. “What the... “ Grifo inspected the liquefied substance get had trod on, turning pale as he did so. His boot was firmly lodged inside the chest cavity of a dead Wingidon, whose rib cage had collapsed. The rest of the body was lathered in mud and putrefied remains, while the face had seemingly been torn off. Grifo felt his stomach contract in horror.

“Here's Verick’s delivery, as he promised.”

The voice of an unknown being shocked him profoundly, causing him.to jump slightly before he spun around, hand gripped on the training club he was given to defend himself with. What he saw confounded him further.

Standing adjacent to the dead bodies in the cart was a tall figure, lacking any skin or flesh - it was simply a skeleton with a few protrusions, traces of embedded organs and a red shroud of light, supported by a staff of agglomerated bones.

“Who...who are you?” Grifo hesitantly questioned, attempting to call himself to look presentable as a defector.

“I am a Marrowkai, who goes by the name of Xinfain, a sorcerer affiliated with Chaos.” He struck out his bony hand to greet him. “You must be…” The Marrowkai paused to reevaluate his statement “...frustrated at your general for sending you out on such a menial task.”

“Yes, that is correct, which is why I would like to join you and become a spy by going back home and telling you a few things to help you destroy the Great Knights.” Grifo responded instantaneously, taking a deep breath afterwards.

Xinfain’s expression became more curious “A spy? You seem...too keen to defect. Tell us some information that we don't know, and perhaps we can allow you to work for us, prove your loyalty and worth as a labourer, and then we can package you off as yet another spy.. “

“Yet another spy...loyal labourer…” Grifo blinked repeatedly as he tried to process Xinfain’s promise. “I’m sorry, but can't I just start as a spy immediately? People may get suspicious if I return later and I think I might need some money first…”

“Then we need to at least know what sort of information you can offer us.” Xinfain’s relatively amiable tone descended into something more serious.

“Give me some money first, and I’ll help you.” Grifo replied, silently hoping that his confrontational attitude would not get him killed. He had completed deals like thus in the past; surely this could go just as well.

“You must convince us first.” Xinfain replied, this time with a slight hint of a threat.

Breathing deeply, Grifo stick his outstretched palm in front of Xinfain, cursing silently. “Please give me something.- I’ve been involved in too much today.”

“Fool” Xinfain muttered angrily, and whispered a sinister incantation. Unaware of what the incantation had achieved, Grifo searched the immediate area, only to locate...a Juggernaut?

“Hold on mate, I’m on your side, I’m a-” The advancing Juggernaut took a swing at Grifo, knocking him out cold in the middle of his sentence.

"I told you the cloak would work." Xinfain smirked at the Juggernaut.

"Yes, it has."

Chapter Twelve - RuinEdit

Tangeldis trudged towards the compound that was the temporary prison, spear and shield in hand. The commotion had disturbed her the entire night, and she was keen to discover the source.

She weaved her way through the obliterated streets, stepping over the fresh remnants of Rovalian soldiers and citizens who were butchered alike. As with most of the soldiers, she had grown used to the pungent stench of the rotting, torn-apart bodies that were a characteristic of the wake of a Chaos onslaught. “Stupid aristocrats” she whispered - their actions were in effect the cause of this.

Then again, Pepin could always have been more assertive of his viewpoint from the beginning; he was, after all, leader of the expedition. From what she saw, his efforts were limited to one or two complaints, before he simply gave up and accepted it - Tangeldis would have almost labelled him as feckless were it not for his caring nature. Perhaps the loss of his position would strengthen his assertiveness.

Maybe if I was the general, things would have been different. Why Kirev decided to join the expedition, I have no idea, but perhaps it was something to do with the general present?” Tangeldis pondered. Just as the thought came to her mind, she began questioning the entire command structure. People like Nircurus could point out that, in the early stage of her career, she had more than her fair share of mistakes and failures. Now, she had learnt from all of this, how to be assertive and authoritative, to maintain discipline within the ranks, to take logistics into account and all the battle tactics in existence available to her. Tangeldis was not the same foolish knight she had been during the Lostathon Campaign; many attributes had changed.

“Lieutenant Commander Nessconui, what are you doing here? Surely you should be asleep know, given the lateness of yesterday's assault?” The helmetless Juggernaut at the front of the prison complex spoke. It was Uialok, her voice underlined with smugness and her expression supercilious.

“Those are precisely the reasons: I’ve come to inquire as to what those sounds were, which woke me up. They sounded like you were massacring prisoners or something equally psychopathic.” Tangeldis quipped in return, grinning arrogantly in amusement in mimicry of her opposite number.

Uialok’s face suddenly morphed from leering to concerned and angry. “Who told you? Was it that weasel Grifo?”

“Sorry, what? I do not associate with that fool Grifo. But you…” The perplexed Tangeldis peered over Uialok’s shoulders. Her eyes immediately widened in shock “Oh my…you psycho-”

Before Tangeldis could even finish expressing her horror, Uialok swiftly hurled her aside with one of her bulky arms, punching the air out of her stomach and winding her, while her spear and shield clattered to her side. “Ilfibrir, help guard, I need to deal with something.” Uialok cracked her knuckles in delight at the prospect of pummelling yet another Great Knight to death.

Tangeldis' vision blurred slightly as she lifted her head from the ground, already saturated with blood from the previous slaughter. Coughing and gasping for air as she staggered up, she gradually registered Uialok advancing steadily towards her, intent on killing. "You little..." She paused her internalised cursing, realising its futility.

Her head was spinning: a Juggernaut, an enhanced killing machine and her superior, was on the verge of ending her life for witnessing the aftermath of a brutal massacre. She could barely even understand what was going on, but it was at least clear that the carnage was something to be kept undercover. Uialok’s helmet snapped shut in anticipation of the further gore that could splatter over her face.

“Uialok, hold on, I didn't see anything, what are you…” Tangeldis’ desperate plea for mercy trailed off as it was obvious she was being ignored. These Juggernauts had no mercy - they just needed to get their job done as efficiently as possible. And yet, what was their job?

Pausing her pondering, Tangeldis crawled into a crouching position, gripping her trusty spear and shield. Uialok was unlikely to have an epiphany in the following seconds that would enable her to completely turn back from her murderous rage. The metallic being was drawing ever closer, intent on savagely ripping apart its scarcely armoured prey.

Curse you Uialok” Tangeldis hissed, and thrusted her spear upward, aiming for a slight gap in between Uialok’s armour, just as the latter prepared for an overhead strike with her morning star. Her thrust pushed the Juggernaut back, causing her to miss her subsequent attack. Instead, the spiked ball of the morning star pounded the ground, forming a small crater in the ground. She grunted slightly in frustration at the failure of her attack, while not sparing a single thought for the spear which had penetrated her armour. Not sparing a moment, Tangeldis wrenched out her spear, leaving a minimal gash on the armour.

She jabbed the spear at Uialok’s helmet, trying to provoke some sort of reaction as she targeted her eyes. The spearhead glanced off, but before she could withdraw it, Uialok’s arm snapped upwards, gripping the spearhead firmly in her gauntlet, amd crushed it in a single motion, twisting the metal out of shape.

What the…” Tangeldis hurried backwards, taking into account her damaged weapon, her heart close to exploding out of her chest. Uialok continued advancing. What if their job was to eliminate as many Great Knights as possible? They almost appeared to enjoy it, even more than killing their actual enemies.

With an angered roar, Tangeldis prodded the shaft bluntly into Uialok’s centre, only enraging her. She reached to snap the pathetic remnant of wood, but Tangeldis maneuvered what was now a staff to attack her knees. Uialok’s next move was restricted as she struggled to maintain her footing,  before lifting her left arm to block a barrage of blows from the mangled spear and securing the morning star to her belt.

“Enough” The Juggernaut grunted, and wrenched the spear towards her, tugging Tangeldis off her feet. Uialok’s spiked fist, now free of a weapon, bolted forwards, powering into Tangeldis’ shield that was defending her lower torso. Her fist blasted a prominent dent in the shield, once again smashing the air out of the smaller knight. Satisfied, Uialok threw the body to the ground, ready to deliver the killing blow. Tangeldis remained on the ground, gasping for air and limbs writhing to escape.

“Uialok! Leave her - a public execution will do better.” A gravelled voice exclaimed. Uialok, her weapon in mid-air, gently lowered her weapon in disappointment. “Just kill me now you scum!” The battered lieutenant commander tried to verbalise, unwilling to give all of the Juggernauts themselves the satisfaction of a public execution to demoralise the army. She turned her head and spat at the approaching being, her face crinkled up to meet the heavy blow of a blunt kick.

***

“Excellent” He heard a distant voice cackle with delight at his brutal murder “Make sure you finish all of them.”

He heard a voice emanate from his own mouth “It shall be done, my queen” A voice that was not his. “Some of us are destined to be outlived. Such as you.” The voice taunted him.

A startled Vince shot upright, hyperventilating in the aftermath of yet another nightmare. “Why does this keep happening?” He wracked his brain for any sort of explanation, rational or not. They been happening sporadically, stretching one tortured narrative over the course of several nights. And yet, each time he did not feel he was dreaming, only witnessing a series of twisted killings.

“Hey Vince, did you have another one of your nightmares? We’ve been assigned to scout, mostly because the majority of the army are literally camp followers at this point.” Delphius’ voice boomed at him, the tall figure looming above him.

“Yeah, those stupid night…” He mumbled the rest of his words, blinking repeatedly. The voice sounded far too familiar. “No, it's just a coincidence. A rather odd coincidence.

“Ahem, Vince are you ok? You're looking at me like I just smashed someone's head open.” Delphius commented.

“Yeah, sorry, I’m just feeling a bit confused at the moment.” Vince responded hesitantly, almost apologetic for his mental accusation.

“Well...get ready to scout Captain. We’re expected to find signs of a large Chaos base nearby.” The other grimaced. His voice was in no way anxious, but rather calm and sarcastic, as most of their casual conversations were.

Silently, Vince nodded in understanding. “We’re doomed.”

***

“Daddy, why do you look so much like the king? Are you his twin brother, because your face looks like him, but you don't dress like him at all.” She questioned inquisitively.

“Oh no, Amharia, I just...look a lot like him, that's all.” Her father answered.

“Oh OK” She sighed “It would be really cool if you were actually the King’s twin brother, because then you could pretend to be him and maybe even let me see the palace!”

“Yes, it would be, wouldn't it…” He mumbled knowingly.

“Yeah, it would be! Maybe you could apply to be one of his lookalikes? Although apparently that's very dangerous.” Amharia grinned innocently.

Her father nodded in recognition. “It certainly is dangerous.” He smiled.

“Okay, because when you came to meet me at the orphanage, someone yelled really loudly that the king was here, but it was actually just you.”

“Really? How interesting! If only I was actually the king; then I could wear fancy clothes all the time, and sit on the throne all day and have lots and lots of fancy food…” He spoke, glancing at his own attire in the process. He was clad in a typical brown woven shirt, shrouded by a black cloak - the regular clothing of a freeman.

Amharia giggled, amused by her father’s antics. The latter smiled back.

“If I was a princess, I could always hunt and play and not have to worry about learning Inamortan and explore the old castle you showed me last month, that's called...Caras Hurn?”

She glanced over to her father for confirmation.

“Wow, you almost remembered the whole name! It's called Caras Gern, which is what we usually call it now, mostly because people think that one of the languages of the East sounds good. But you would still have to learn Inamortan as fluently as you do now.” He corrected warmly.

“Do you think it sounds good? That Eastern language?” Amharia asked.

“I certainly do.” He spoke with an air of sophistication that made once again made Amharia simper.

“Maybe I could bring all my friends to the castle? I could tell them where not to go, and where all the cave entrances are, and we could pretend to be the army fighting off our enemies.”

A sense of seriousness returned to her father’s tone. “Maybe you could, but I don't like the idea of having my daughter fight. Something dangerous could happen to you, and I don't want that to happen.”

“But fighting seems really fun! Do you remember that boy we saw earlier, who was hunting and practicing with his friend? They looked like they were having fun, so much fun that they got confused like you said and the boy called you “dad” as well.”She exclaimed in protest.

“Yes...hopefully we will never have to fight though.” He commented.

After a peaceful moment of reflective silence, Amharia inquired again “Daddy, why can't I live with you? Is it because mummy has gone?” The father nodded gravely. He paused for several moments.

“Before I forget…” Remembering a gift for his daughter, he took off his rucksack and rummaged around hurriedly. “Here you are.”

Presented before her was a short dagger, held in a jewel encrusted scabbard. Her father gently lowered it onto his daughter’s outstretched palms, watching as she gaped at it, examining it in detail. The blood red rubies were imprisoned within the structure, which appeared as an ornate silver vessel containing the very liquid the blade within sought to draw.

“Wow daddy, it's really pretty!” She exclaimed in surprise at the reception of the gift.

“There is, however, one thing you have to promise me.” Amharia looked up attentively at her father. “You must never show this to anyone, and unless you are in danger of dying or being captured, you must never use it. I need to know that you can hide something like that. Do you understand that?”

Dejected at the caveat her father had placed with the gift, and yet still revelling in its magnificence, she nodded, slightly torn in her mind. “Yes daddy”

Her father smiled in appreciation - “Thank you Amharia, I know I can trust you do that.”

***

Amharia lay cocooned in a series of blankets, trying to restrain her eyes, which were red from crying over several prolonged periods of mourning. Her own half-brother, now a mutated slave, had almost killed her - the only reason he had not was because of Vectiam. Now she was dead too. Oh how she missed her previous life - even if she would never be a princess, being a carefree hunter roaming around the wilderness of Rovaltinny with her friends. Of course, that would never happen now. Now, she was utterly clueless, in the hands of a small army being suppressed by their own commanders. How long would it be before they were all overwhelmed and slaughtered like so many Rovalians had been before them?

We need somewhere safe to hide, like a huge fortress…” Amharia’s eyes widened at the prospect of her epiphany - Caras Gern, the hidden, old decrepit castle that could still serve them usefully. The fortress had deep Wells and a connection to a complex system of caves below in case hiding from the enemy truly was required. Surely their army, numbering around 1,500 at this point, could hold such a fortress, try and call for reinforcements and remain alive, rather than pressing deeper into Rovaltinny at an unsustainable rate. Even the most inexperienced of them, used as nothing more than overworked camp followers, should not have any difficulty in defending such a position.

But who will listen to me?” she pondered. Vectiam certainly would never be able to again. Then it dawned upon her - Vince Sihanouk, the Great Knight captain who had first discovered her. He seemed to be good friends with Vectiam - surely he would hear her.

As the sun started to stretch its warm fingers over the charred wasteland that was once a magnificent fortress city, Amharia set out with her rucksack and bow, intent on finding Vince.

“But who will listen to me?” she pondered. Vectiam certainly would never be able to again. Then it dawned upon her - Vince Sihanouk, the Great Knight captain who had first discovered her. He seemed to be good friends with Vectiam - surely he would hear her.

As the sun started to stretch its warm fingers over the charred wasteland that was once a magnificent fortress city, Amharia set out with her rucksack and bow, intent on finding Vince.

***

Once again, masses of grey trundled along the path, seemingly untouched by the downpour of sunlight on their backs. The scouting party advanced, as fatigued as ever.

“If only we had more soldiers who were actually more useful than a camp follower. That way, we wouldn't be as dead inside as we are, having to perform literally every single duty a competent soldier has to do.” A disgruntled Delphius groaned, dissatisfied with everything at this point.

In full agreement, Samson nodded “Considering that we thought that Pepin's ability to delegate was stunningly horrific, the Juggernauts don't even exist on that scale any more.” As though anticipating a comment from Vince, the two of them turned towards him, awaiting his response.

Yet, Vince remained silent and open-eyed, plodding on like a mindless drone. To his companions, he seemed oblivious to his surroundings. On the contrary, his mind was in fact processing everything that had occurred over the expedition. Perhaps he should have heeded his mother's advice and kept a diary to log all the tumultuous events that had happened - how a basic, less-than prepared expedition, was thrown into a tranquil kingdom-turned hell hole against a necrotic army bent on a twisted form of genocide, all while being led by a stunningly incompetent, and yet tyrannical, general.

“Captain Vince!”

Vince snapped out of his state of reflection and turned suddenly, as did Samson and Delphius. Immediately, they were greeted with the glaring light of the rising sun, causing all of them to react naturally by lifting their equipment to save their eyes, peeping more cautiously over the edges instead. As their vision recalibrated, the petite silhouette of a winged creature came drifting towards them. A creature with feathered wings.

Amharia?” Vince pondered.

The figure continued to enlarge in size, until it was evident that Amharia had been trying desperately to catch up with them. Fatigued, the child landed with a thud, her legs buckling beneath her as they struggled to maintain the weight suddenly put upon them. “Captain,” she panted, “I have something to tell you!”

Her exclamation was met with looks of confusion from all of the soldiers.

Intrigued, Vince extended his hand to pull the orphan he had saved off the ground once again. “What is it Amharia?”

Eagerly, Amharia scrambled away in the direction of the forest, yelling “Follow me!”

“Amharia, wait!” Vince yelled after her, before realising that she was clearly not going to listen to his heeds. “This better be a good surprise,” he muttered, “Squads 1 and 2, follow me. The rest of you, stay in position with Parean's and Nircurus’ squadrons.”

***

“How long is it until we reach ‘the surprise’?” Vince called out. “This is ridiculous. How did we just allow her to pull us off on some insane tangent up into the mountains,” he sighed, almost disappointed at his own lack of authority. Then again, he always expected eleven year olds to be quite headstrong in their own right. In fact, it almost reminded him of Samson and Delphius, both of whom were eager to get their hands on whatever secrets the Great Knights would hide in their archive chambers. Not even Vince could stop them from trying; he eventually ended up participating.

“Only a hundred steps I think! Then we have to go through a tunnel and we will arrive there,” Amharia responded cheerfully, all the while panting and struggling to keep up with the majority of the Knights, who had been hardened by years of physical training. Vince gave a casual smile, and proceeded to return to marching onwards.

After a few minutes of scrabbling up the increasingly steep stairs, misaligned from the years of neglect, the party reached a small opening in the mountains, concealed from  the outside by a multitude of trees, shrubs and walls of ivy, waiting for their Wingidon guide to appear.

Amharia finally popped up behind them, gesturing for them to continue through as she was too tired to even speak herself.

“So, Vince, what do you think this surprise is?” Delphius inquired in an almost mocking tone.

“Something good I hope,” the captain returned tersely.

“You do need to be more decisive sometimes Vince - leaders do need to be able to assert their own authority and make their own decisions quickly, rather than…” Samson jerked his head in Amharia's direction “...allowing a foreign child to lead you, for example. I suppose you can trust her though.”

“Yes, I can trust her, which is why I’m following her,” Vince spoke in reply, eager to get away from their criticisms for now.

“You don't seem awfully confident if I’m honest, but gaining trust is a powerful thing. If someone betrayed me, I would hunt them down to the ends of Inamorta,” Samson grinned.

Vince shot him a comical look “I would also be incredibly frustrated if an 11 year old girl I rescued from a destroyed city decided to backstab me as well.”

“She does have her own knife though, from what Tillecthel told me.” Delphius stated with a smile.

Amused, Vince snorted at the possibility of betrayal, “I find it hard to imagine that she would suddenly decide to turn against me, let alone plunge a knife into me,” all the while pleased that the subject had shifted.

“She could probably fly above you, and then dive down and lodge the knife right into your neck there,” Delphius pointed to the small gap below Vince's ear, poking the vulnerable skim that lay there, expecting a reaction.

However, Vince did not move a single bit. He was transfixed by what was before him: a fortress. A fortress of gargantuan proportions, rising from a wide pit in the mountains and reaching only as tall as the shortest of them, its irregular rock-laden tip blending in perfectly. Below the natural mountain structure were the clear marks of Rovalian engineering - the large entrances had been cleft along the sides, and angular edges had been eroded over time to give the impression of a lumpy cascade of grey liquid forming the octagonal base of the tower. Arrow loops constantly permeated the surface of the tower in all directions, waiting for the day when they would finally serve their military purpose. Even in its plain monochrome colour, the derelict structure on its own was already impressive to the eye, and its proportions, whether regular or not, were somehow pleasant. “The Golden Ratio,” Vince acknowledged from his previous knightly education in classical architecture.

The pit below contained cobblestone intended to pave the way into separate subterranean tunnels, most likely for the delivery of supplies. Above the depression were the carcasses of several bridges from openings in the mountains, akin to the very one the Great Knights stood upon.

“Welcome to the surprise.” Amharia panted “Welcome to Caras Gern.”

Delphius swore in amazement. “Please tell me we can go inside that thing.”

“Of course! That's why we went...all the way here - the bridge here works.” Amharia answered, before stumbling ahead. The rest of the group followed, intrigued to investigate the inside of the structure.

***

Scattered lumps of stone and feathers littered the hallways. The castle, once full of Rovalian, children and the shouts and screams of their fantastical battles with huge monsters with their toy bows, now lay gaunt and silent. The half squadrons had separated and swept through the corridors, left to their own devices to explore the intricacies of such a large fortress, while Amharia led Vince up to the central chamber, clambering up the spiral staircases.

“So, Amharia, how much do you know about the fortress? Its history, capacity, location, and why it was just left like this?” Vince interrogated Amharia as calmly as possible, eager for some information to explain how a structure of this size had been abandoned and degraded to the point of being considered a child's playground.

Amharia scratched her head, digging for any information she could recall from her father: “I know some king made it hundreds of years ago, and they decided it was too expensive to maintain whole being unnecessary, since the Kingdom had spread to the west and this area didn't need that much protection. I don't know much else though.”

“I see,” mumbled Vince. “Are there any books and records in here?”

Noticing his question, Amharia grinned, “That's why I’m taking you up here. This is the book room where my daddy said the commanders would talk with other people and discuss their strategies. It's got a very good view as well!”

“Oh nice…” Vince nodded in appreciation at Amharia's initiative. “Damn, I wish I had that sort of initiative all the time.”

Unaware of Vince's train of thought, Amharia continued describing the beauty of the surrounding mountains. “Because the mountains are so big, it looks like you are in a river valley, but there are also higher places where you can see higher than the other mountains, but they're hidden.”

Vince nodded half-heartedly, “Yeah, this entire fortress is huge.”